How America Is Basically Ignoring The Worst Refugee Crisis Of Our Era

by John Haltiwanger
Getty Images

WARNING: This article contains disturbing images. 

A 3-year-old boy's dead body was found by a police officer on a beach in Turkey on Wednesday, another casualty of a devastating war that's claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives.

Syria has been consumed by violent conflict, chaos and destruction since 2011, forcing 12 million people from their homes in the process. The young boy on the beach was one of these people. He died after two boats carrying Syrian refugees capsized while attempting to travel from Turkey to Greece. It's reported 12 other people died, including the boy's older brother.

The boy's name was Aylan Kurdi, and he was from the Syrian town of Kobani.

Heartbreaking and deeply disturbing photos of Kurdi's dead body went viral on Wednesday, with many Twitter users sharing them under #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik (humanity washed ashore).

These images are a painfully powerful reminder of the overwhelmingly insufficient response to the plight of Syrians, particularly on behalf of the world's wealthiest nations.

This image of the body of a Syrian boy drowned today on a Turkish beach is emblematic of the world's failure in Syria — Liz Sly (@LizSly) September 2, 2015
No words. #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik — 莉塔 (@RitaMJames) September 3, 2015

There are currently around 7.6 million internally displaced people in Syria, and over four million Syrian refugees. The vast majority of these refugees fled to neighboring countries, primarily Turkey and Lebanon.

But, these countries are not equipped to deal with the scale of the crisis, leading thousands to head for Europe. And while Syrians currently constitute the largest population of refugees, they are not the only people who were displaced.

We are witnessing the worst refugee crisis of our era.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports, during 2014, an average of 42,500 individuals were forced to leave their homes each day due to violent conflict or persecution. This directly contributed to the current refugee crisis Europe is experiencing.

But, you wouldn't know in America. Instead, we've been focusing on the presidential race and, primarily, Donald Trump -- an individual who seeks to make it much harder for refugees and asylum seekers to enter the United States.

The 2016 presidential election is over a year away, but this refugee crisis is happening right now and requires imminent attention.

We need to wake up.

America's dubious activities abroad (US foreign policy), directly contributed to the global refugee crisis. For that reason, along with the fact the US is the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, it has an obligation to increase assistance to refugees -- especially Syria's.

But the fact of the matter is America's response to this crisis has been decidedly lackluster and inadequate.

The US permitted just 1,541 of the more than four million Syrian refugees to enter its borders.

On Monday, US officials announced between 5,000 and 8,000 Syrian refugees will be accepted into the country next year. But David Miliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, argues that's still not enough. He said,

The US has historically been the world leader in recognizing the moral obligation to resettle refugees. But in the four years of the Syria crisis there has been inertia rather than leadership. As the German government calmly says that it expects 800,000 refugees and asylum seekers in 2015, it is vital for the US to step up its response. Refugee resettlement is a proven way of giving people a chance to remake their lives. And from Georgia to San Diego the small numbers of Syrians who have been admitted have shown an ability to contribute to the US economy and society.

While it's true America spent $4 billion on humanitarian aid for Syria, it's also important to note foreign aid constitutes less than 1 percent of America's $4 trillion federal budget. Simultaneously, America has the largest defense budget in the world (around $600 billion).

Correspondingly, The Washington Post notes the amount being spent on humanitarian aid for Syria is less than a third of what's been spent on air strikes against ISIS ($10.5 million per day).

Simply put, the US could be doing far more to aid Syrians, and the global refugee population in general, via peaceful means.

Both the US government and public could learn a great deal from the people of Iceland in this regard.

The Icelandic government recently announced it would only accept 50 Syrian refugees, which didn't sit too well with the people. In response, 10,000 Icelanders said they'd welcome Syrian refugees into their homes. To put this into perspective, the population of Iceland is barely over 330,000, while America's is over 320 million.

Iceland proved to the world there's no excuse to stand idly by as this crisis persists.

Now, more than ever, refugees need the international community's help.

Currently, there are more forcibly displaced individuals across the world than at any point in recorded history.

The UNHCR reports by the end of 2014, the global population of forcibly displaced people had reached a record high of nearly 60 million people, including 19.5 million refugees, 38.2 million internally displaced people and 1.8 million asylum seekers.

The vast majority of refugees (86 percent) are hosted by countries in developing regions, which don't have the resources or infrastructures to address their needs.

What's more, half of all refugees are children, a fact Aylan Kurdi is a tragic reminder of.

Even Americans who are aware of the scale of the current refugee crisis might be thinking it's too far away to be our problem. But that's not how the world works. Just because something isn't happening in your backyard, doesn't mean it can't impact you.

Technology and globalization have made all of us increasingly interdependent, regardless of geography. We can ignore world crises as much as we want, but they will come back to haunt us in the long run.

As The Washington Post puts it,

In an interconnected world, diseases, weapons, population flows — these cannot be fended off by gunboats and barbed wire... The right mix of policies will include foreign aid, training and security assistance and will differ in each situation; outsiders can't solve every problem. But the thousands of desperate people making their way across the Mediterranean Sea, sometimes with tragic results, are a reminder that outsiders can't ignore every problem, either.

It's not only a moral imperative for the United States to help more refugees, it's a practical matter.

We can never afford to forget, in this interconnected and convoluted world, borders are ultimately irrelevant. Regardless of faith, gender, sexual orientation, politics, race, nationality or ethnicity, we rise and fall together.

Citations: Shocking images of drowned Syrian boy show tragic plight of refugees (The Guardian), Almost quarter of a million people dead in Syria war (Al Jazeera), I read Donald Trump's immigration plan and its even crueler than I expected (Vox), Heres How The US Sparked A Refugee Crisis On The Border In 8 Simple Steps (Huffington Post), Worldwide displacement hits all time high as war and persecution increase (UNHCR), The Global Refugee Crisis Region by Region (NYT), 10000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees after authors call (The Telegraph), World At War (UNHCR), Almost quarter of a million people dead in Syria war (Al Jazeera), US Commitment to Accept Up To 8000 Syrians Not Enough (IRC), US To Accept Up To 8000 Syrian Refugees Next Year (NPR), More than four million Syrians have now fled war and persecution (UNHCR), Guess How Much Of Uncle Sams Money Goes To Foreign Aid Guess Again (NPR)