History has lessons for helping Syrian refugees

The photo of the drowned Syrian boy on a beach in Turkey was a tragic reminder of scenes I witnessed all too many times in Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s when hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese "boat people" were washing ashore. For those lucky enough to survive the trip, finding safe refuge was an elusive prize. Still, an extraordinary international effort involving more than 70 nations over nearly two decades managed to secure asylum for nearly 1.5 million refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as well as permanent resettlement for nearly 2 million people (including about 600,000 Vietnamese who left directly from their home country).

The Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) implemented then, in response to the Indochinese exodus, is not a perfect model for the current crisis in Europe and the Middle East, and its shortcomings are as instructive as its successes. But it offers an example of the kind of large-scale international commitments and wide-ranging policy and program initiatives that are needed to redirect the ad hoc, uncoordinated and often cruel government actions that now only compound the misery and uncertainty of more than 4 million Syrian refugees and other displaced persons in the Middle East and Africa. A key tenet of the CPA was to maintain a promise of asylum for all arrivals and resettlement for refugees — both critical elements of an earlier international commitment — while adding a program to repatriate those who did not meet the refugee definition.


The first priority today should be to establish that the people in flight are deserving, at minimum, of dignified treatment; provision of food, water, shelter and emergency health care; and availability of at least temporary asylum to pursue longer-term solutions. The movement into Europe includes significant numbers from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, most of whom would be considered refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and thus deserving of core protections that include the right not to be returned to a country where their life or freedoms are threatened.

In the case of the Indochinese refugees, the commitment to provide temporary asylum in Southeast Asian countries was linked with assurances of ultimate resettlement in another country — the so-called "open shore for an open door." In the case of the current Europe and the Middle East asylum crisis, expanded resettlement commitments should come from around the world not just the West, though the United States should scale up its resettlement of Syrian refugees — we have admitted only 1,500 Syrian refugees since 2011 and should increase that by at least tenfold or twentyfold in the next year. But all European countries, not just the wealthier nations and the frontline states, must accept their responsibilities to broaden commitments to grant permanent asylum to bona fide refugees.


Not all of the asylum-seekers pouring into Europe will be granted asylum, and many will need to either move on to other countries or be helped to go back to a safe country of origin. The Indochinese Comprehensive Plan of Action provided for monitored return of non-refugees to countries of origin and reintegration assistance once home. This was not without challenge or controversy, but the CPA opened new ground in recognizing that large-scale movements of populations, even from conflict and post-conflict settings, include mixed flows of people — refugees and migrants — for whom different solutions are needed.

Something that the CPA did not accomplish was to secure commitments among countries of asylum either to allow asylum seekers to live and work outside of refugee camps or to allow them to settle in place. Temporary asylum in Southeast Asia always had a fence around it and permanent, local settlement was never an option. For most of the millions of Syrians displaced outside their country, the most workable solution is to have an opportunity to live in countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries until the civil war is ended and they can return home safely. But that means having not simply enough food and basic necessities but also the opportunity to work, to send their children to school, and to live in communities, not camps. That will require massive commitments of new resources too.

All of this may seem like a daunting challenge, and it is. But the models I saw put to work in Southeast Asia could be adapted to meet the new realities — and bring new hope to many of the people washing up onto Europe's beaches.

Courtland Robinson is an associate professor at the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His email is