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Editorial

Sharing the burden

Images of the lifeless body of a Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach and the revolt of thousands of Middle Eastern and North African refugees on a Hungarian train bound for Austria this weekend have finally compelled European leaders to confront the humanitarian crisis unfolding on their watch. Yesterday , Germany and Sweden pressed European Union countries to adopt a system of quotas to ensure a fair distribution of refugees across all 28 member states; that proposal is scheduled to be presented tomorrow . But even if the E.U. agrees to a formula for sharing the burden, it may not be enough to accommodate all the refugees seeking asylum, nor will it stop the ongoing conflicts in Syria and elsewhere that are driving millions of refugees from their homes.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is insisting the refugee problem is too big to fall on just a handful of wealthy countries, and she's right. To her credit she announced over the weekend that her country has allocated more than 6 billion euros over the next two years to resettle the migrants. Germany, the largest recipient of refugees from Syria and North Africa, expects to take in some 800,000 migrants this year, despite resistance from right-wing nationalist political parties, and Ms. Merkel says the country could offer asylum to half a million more annually for the foreseeable future if necessary. But it can't cope with 800,000 new arrivals every year.

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Ms. Merkel has taken a leadership role in addressing the crisis, but the attitude toward the refugees in other E.U. countries has been little short of shameful. Hungary, through which hundreds of thousands of migrants passed on their way to Germany and other Western European nations, announced it is building a 107-mile long barrier along its border to Serbia to keep refugees from entering the country; its president claims they threaten its "Christian" culture. But even countries that have indicated a willingness to offer refugees asylum have said they can't take in more than a few thousand at most.

Britain, where many refugees seek to settle, insists it can't handle more than 20,000 despite being one of the richest countries in the region. France says it can't do much better. French President François Hollande acknowledges France has a duty to help people fleeing war, but it is offering to accept only 24,000 refugees over the next two years. And the U.S., which should be setting an example for E.U. countries wary of accepting any refugees at all, has taken in fewer than 2,000 migrants from Syria since the war in that country began in 2011. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is running for president in 2016, is still the only announced candidate in either party to suggest the U.S. could do a lot better than that. Mr. O'Malley says the U.S. should be offering asylum to up to 65,000 refugees.

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Opponents of taking in refugees from the wars in Syria and North Africa say the migrants are mostly fleeing poverty rather than conflicts at home and that offering them asylum will only encourage more economic migrants to attempt the journey. But anyone who has followed the reports of refugees reaching Europe must realize that the vast majority of people are fleeing for their lives. Syria has become a three-sided battleground in which Syrian government troops, a hodgepodge of rebel groups and militias and jihadists affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State are all furiously fighting among themselves, making the country a virtual death trap for civilians caught in the crossfire. Some 4 million Syrians have already fled the country, and millions more have been turned into displaced persons inside their own country. And they're the lucky ones — since the war began 300,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict.

Europe's refugee crisis is a symptom of the larger human catastrophe taking place on its southern flank, which will continue as long as the conflicts driving refugees to flee persist. Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations Special Envoy to Syria, said yesterday that until the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran agree on a framework for resolving the fighting, there is little chance the humanitarian disaster it has created will end. But that would require far more political will than any of them — or the E.U. — have shown so far.


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