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Editorial

Millions on the move

Around the globe some 60 million people are on the move. They pack what belongings they can carry and set off as families or in groups, making their way as best they can on rickety boats, crammed inside trucks, perched atop trains or on foot. Some seek a better life, but many are just fleeing war and conflict, glad to be alive. Though their lives have been turned upside down, much of the rest of the world continues to look on with indifference.

That is why we are encouraged by President Barack Obama's call on 45 countries attending the opening session of the United Nations in New York this week to take concrete action to address the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding on Europe's southern flank, where waves of desperate migrants from Syria, North Africa and elsewhere have been arriving on Greek and Italian beaches in recent years. Mr. Obama's appeal followed a U.N. declaration approved on Monday that aimed to provide a more coordinated and humane response to the refugee crisis, but that document contained few specifics. The president's plan goes much further toward filling those blanks.

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Among the steps Mr. Obama has proposed are increasing humanitarian aid for the new arrivals by $3 billion and doubling the number of refugees who are offered resettlement in European Union countries and the U.S. (This year the U.S. took in some 10,000 Syrian refugees, but that's an infinitesimal number compared to its population of 300 million; by contrast Germany, with a population of only 80 million, has taken in more than 800,000 migrants since last year alone. The Obama administration has pledged to resettle 110,000 Syrian refugees next year, but that's still a pittance compared to some other countries.) In addition, the president wants to increase access to education for 1 million refugee children and create a million more jobs for their parents.

"In the eyes of innocent men and women and children who through no fault of their own have had to flee everything that they know, everything that they love, we have to have the empathy to see ourselves," Mr. Obama said in final address to the world body. "We have to imagine what it would be like for our families, for our children, if the unspeakable happened to us." The president insisted the world would be a safer place if the international community reached out to help those in need "even when the politics are hard." In speaking of the latter, the president no doubt had in mind the resurgence of right-wing nationalist parties in Europe and elsewhere that have capitalized on a revival of xenophobia and bigotry against foreigners.

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Mr. Obama spoke against the backdrop of what has become the greatest mass migration since World War II and the largest movement of peoples in recorded history. They are coming not just from Syria but many other countries and regions as well, including Afghanistan, Iraq and any of a dozen or so other nations in sub-Saharan and North Africa. Moreover, some experts warn that the mass movement may continue or even increase, possibly for years or decades to come, as a continuing legacy of the world's failed states, intractable conflicts and environmental disasters.

Mr. Obama is right that the world's leaders can't wish away or ignore these developments. The migrants are fleeing persecution, poverty, ethnic and religious strife and war, but these are often only symptoms of a more profound economic and social upheaval that threatens to overwhelm even the world's largest and best-equipped welfare systems. That is why this historic movement of refugees from the global south to the global north, and from rural areas to urban centers, is not just a problem for Europe but for the whole world. As the president said today , if we can't imagine ourselves in the position of the millions of people who have been driven from their homes by forces beyond their control, we could eventually find ourselves sharing their fate.


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