Over the past year, human rights advocates and policy experts alike have warned of the growing plight of refugees fleeing the humanitarian crisis triggered in the Middle East. And over the past few weeks, headlines finally began to reflect this desperate reality.
Stories on the human toll of the refugee crisis abound. Laith Majid in tears clutching his two children just off the Greek Island of Kos. Drowned three-year-old Aylan Kurdi on the shores of Turkey. A truckload of more than 70 refugees die of heatstroke in Austria.
The number of displaced people in the world today is the highest number since World War II at 60 million people. Currently there are four million Syrian refugees who have escaped war and dire living conditions and an additional seven million Syrian citizens currently displaced within their country’s borders. The European Union’s (EU) border agency has said more than half a million migrants have arrived at the EU's borders this year, a massive influx nearly double the number from 2014, with origins ranging throughout Africa and the Middle East.
Just last week, President Barack Obama pledged a commitment for the United States to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, up from 1,000 this past year. But refugee advocates and some members of Congress say taking in an additional 10,000 refugees does not go far enough toward addressing the crisis at hand. The 10,000 refugees would come almost exclusively from the backlog of Syrians who have already applied for asylum, and not those individuals fleeing now.
Indeed such a commitment is fewer people than what some other countries have pledged to accept or have already accepted. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that Germany intends to take in up to 800,000 people who have fled war and persecution, and Canada has committed to 11,300, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Still, most European countries have not yet committed to absorb refugees, let alone at such impressive numbers.
A dialogue has also been triggered in the global Jewish community about what our organized reaction should be, particularly in light of our own history as refugees seeking asylum from anti-Semitism. Certainly the treatment of migrants evokes, in many, memories of Europe’s darkest hour.
Hundreds of refugees surrounded by armed police officers and razor-wire fences and imagery of asylum seekers in the Czech Republic led off a train where identification numbers were written on their hands, fueled with rising trends of nationalism appear to present Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
To be sure, the migrant crisis is no genocide. Some refugees are Christians fleeing religion-based persecution, but many others are those simply caught in a terrible crossfire of civil war, starvation, chlorine gassing, and barrel bombing, who seek refuge. But it is our shared history of persecution and flight that compels us to act.
Tackling a crisis of this magnitude is going to require the world coming together to not only open borders to more asylum seekers, but also to increase humanitarian assistance to Syria and its neighbors in crisis and push for a political solution to the war. An emergency meeting of EU justice and home affairs ministers will convene tomorrow to address a comprehensive and united EU response to the migration crisis. This is indeed the moment for the international community to gather and create solutions addressing both the immediate and long-term needs created by these challenges, including addressing housing, feeding and clothing the refugees, instituting a practical security screening process, while also establishing a division of responsibility for quota intake of refugees for the foreseeable future.
At this time of year, our global Jewish community is celebrating the high holidays. Although a joyous occasion, Rosh Hashanah is a time for reflection. In this week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we should pause to reflect on this global crisis, and commit our resolution to tackling the humanitarian challenges.
As Hillel’s teaching reminds us, the Torah commands we should love the stranger in our midst. During this important window of reflection, for now and the future, we pray for a good year to come not only for ourselves and our families but also for all those fleeing persecution in search of safety and freedom, and resolve to work toward eradicating their suffering.