Why Europe’s Migrant Crisis Also Belongs to America

Why Europe’s Migrant Crisis Also Belongs to America


Now that the flood of migrants into Europe has reached truly historic proportions, it’s time to acknowledge this as a moment of transformation—and not only in Europe.

We’ve all seen the images, watched the television footage, and read the news reports: Boatloads of migrants beaching off Greek islands, mobbed trains and buses in Budapest, a truckload of 71 fatalities ditched along an Austrian highway, young children drowning in the tides.

The BBC puts the number of migrants arriving in Europe from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Africa, and South Asia at 350,000 for the January-to-August period. But these are only the heads that authorities have been able to count. The true number seems to be unknown.

Related: Mama Merkel Opens the Door the Syrian Refugees

Germany received 104,000 migrants in August alone. Last week Chancellor Merkel’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, said the Federal Republic expects 800,000 asylum seekers this year—1 percent of the population. 

The event to watch now is a “refugee summit” Merkel will host on September 24. Taken utterly by surprise, Europe hasn’t yet displayed anything close to a coherent policy, as is widely noted. It needs one desperately, and the Berlin gathering can be a start--but only if this crisis is understood in its magnitude and its complexity (daunting even to a gifted leader such as Merkel).

The tasks are two: Look back to identify causes and responsibilities--look forward and act on the recognition that this crisis announces a global transformation.

Take your pick among the classifications: Relations between the West and non-West, or North and South, or developed and developing nations or the first world and third, are shifting. Good can come of this, at least on general principle. But it’s imperative that solutions are as big as the problem. 

Related: For Many Refugees, Journey to Europe Begins on Facebook

As Michael Ignatieff, the writer and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government wrote in The New York Times Sunday, “This is a truly biblical movement of refugees and it demands a global response.”

No one seems eager to talk about it, but the roots of this crisis lie in a long succession of bad Western policies in the Middle East and other regions now hemorrhaging their people. This, in a single sentence, takes care of causality and responsibility.

The European powers shaped oil states a century ago that have since done little for their populations. More immediately, operative, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and now the campaign to oust the Assad regime in Syria have shattered the region such that it now suffers what may be an unprecedented degree of lawlessness and violence.  

However, one may analyze the Iraqi and Syrian disasters, the U.S. plainly shares responsibility for the migrants now flooding into Europe. Two statistics will tell you how deeply this thought sinks in: Of the four million Syrians who have fled the civil war against Assad, the U.S. has accepted 1,500.

Related: In Nordics, Many Refugees Encounter Paradise Lost

Utterly lacking in historical perspective. Parenthetically, so is the prevailing American view of the immigration problem it faces: Few of us seem to grasp the extent to which many decades of bad American policy helped shape a continent ridden with poverty and violence.

Here’s a big Step 1 as we consider what has to be done facing forward: The Obama administration should be present and speaking up at Merkel’s refugee summit later this month. You want an America that leads again? Here’s your chance.

In the Middle East, the Western powers have to stop shaping policy according to traditional notions of strategic advantage. This crisis is simply too large and engulfing for that.

Bashar al-Assad may be as unsavory as Saddam Hussein, but he’s not exporting Islamist extremism, as are others in the Middle East whom Washington calls allies. Leave Assad in place for now and set aside rivalries with Russia, Assad’s key supporter, to begin stabilizing the region. Assad and Russia oppose the murderous Islamic State; so does the U.S.: The math here is easy.

Related: Finland's Prime Minister Sipila Offers His Home to Refugees

This column has advocated a comprehensive Marshall Plan for the Middle East several times. What may have once seemed hopelessly idealist is suddenly as “realist” as it gets. Such an undertaking is vital to any long-term solution for one big reason: Europe “pulls” these migrants only to a limited extent; abject conditions in their home countries “push” them.

If you view this crisis in broadest terms—as fallout from huge and growing global inequities—it’s clear that Europe must now make extensive social, political, and economic adjustments. There’s a lot to do, but here and there you see signs that some European leaders are on the case.

Chancellor Merkel, who has spoken vigorously against right-wing opponents of immigration all year, last week urged all European Union members to open doors rather than close them.

As Europe’s de facto leader, Merkel appears intent on setting a powerful example. Two weeks ago her cabinet voted to provide German cities, towns and villages with $1.2 billion, in resettlement assistance. The Guardian reported today that she might increase this figure to $6.7 billion at the refugee summit in two weeks’ time.

On Sunday, a heavyweight group of scholars, writers, executives, and parliamentarians published an open letter calling on the E.U. to establish ferry service for migrants from Turkish ports to Greece and train service from Greece to northern Europe. “It is time for Europe to take decisive action, allowing refugees to enter the EU legally, they wrote in Social Europe, a London website that serves as an E.U. intellectual forum. “Seventy years after the end of World War II, Europe has to take decisive action to avoid another human tragedy.”

Related: Icelanders Tell Government to Take In More Syrian Refugees

Others in Europe now assert that the U.N.’s 65-year-old definition of a refugee has to be revised to answer this crisis effectively. After World War II, “a well-founded fear of persecution” was fundamental to getting refugee status. Too narrow, lawyers and advocates say. If your home is bombed, there is no work, no schools, and your children are hungry, you may not be persecuted but you are a refugee in the world as we have made it. 

Sound thinking. In practice, this will mean some very profound adjustments for Europeans.

As right-wing populist parties such as Alternative für Deutschland and France’s Front Nationale regularly remind everybody, Europeans haven’t yet come to terms on questions of race, ethnicity, and altogether what it means to be a European. This grows more urgent with every new arrival: These people have found new homes and aren’t going anywhere.

As Europe’s demography changes, political balances are likely to be altered, too, and whatever emerges, count on it being interesting. My prediction: Social democratic parties stand to gain strength, conservatives weaken—the same question apparently at work in the U.S.

On the economic social fronts, millions of new Europeans will have to be integrated into European societies without creating a vast, permanent underclass of floor-sweepers. That’s the last thing Europe wants to do with migrants who are by a large majority Muslim.

Housing and feeding migrants are immediate and obvious concerns. But imaginative policies will be needed to get these people educations, training, and employment. Otherwise, today’s mess is groundwork for tomorrow’s.

Apart from the matter of responsibility, there’s another big reason Americans should watch the European crisis carefully: Everything we see is but a variation on what vexes this country every day of the week.