The world has rightly been shocked and angered over the discovery of 71 refugees inside a truck in Austria and the death of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old who died alongside his brother and mother as they fled the violence in Syria.
The question is: What can we do in the short-term that will have a meaningful impact to address this human suffering on a scale not seen in our lifetimes? We propose U.S. policymakers adopt a global program with three elements:
First, policymakers must start with the premise that this is a global crisis that requires a global program to address. Germany's decision to reimpose frontier controls to stem the influx of refugees after EU-wide negotiations broke down demonstrates even determined and capable countries cannot go it alone. There are 60 million people that have been forcibly displaced around the world. Over 4 million refugees are now in the countries bordering Syria, destabilizing a strategically important region. Yet many refugees see undertaking a treacherous journey and leaving the region as the best chance for survival and a future for their children. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) notes that over 366,000 migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe alone by sea so far in 2015, with half coming from Syria.
Second, the U.S. should propose increasing humanitarian assistance to the countries around Syria. The current U.N. Syria Regional Refugee Response Appeal is requesting $4.5 billion, but has only received 37 percent ($2.8 billion) of that total. The World Food Programme (WFP) has cut rations to refugees, can give the most vulnerable refugees in Lebanon just $13 per month for food and may need to cut all assistance to refugees in Jordan. The U.S. should consider announcing an additional round of humanitarian assistance (above the current $4 billion) and using its diplomatic clout to get others to give more. As the Ebola virus crisis demonstrated, U.S. pledges are often amplified with new financial commitments from friends and allies.
Third, we can help save hundreds of thousands of people with a global resettlement scheme for refugees and provisions for safe returns for those denied claims. The target would be to resettle 400,000 refugees — 10 percent of the total — by the end of 2016. This resettlement program could be combined with the regional program EU members are negotiating. Of course, 400,000 is not 4 million. But it would have a meaningful impact on the lives of many. And it also demonstrates that global programs can work and its success can generate momentum for additional cooperative ventures.
The target is also reachable. The model here is the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), negotiated in 1989 to respond to the Indochinese boat people. The CPA included regional screening for refugees, and, while not perfect, resulted in the resettlement of over 500,000 refugees over a six-year period. A resettlement scheme could also be combined with a temporary admission process, as an Australian cabinet minister has recently suggested. The European Union already has a Temporary Protection Directive created after the war in Kosovo. That directive allows for refugees to be granted temporary protection in accordance with the Refugees Convention for a period of one year and can be extended. Given the nature of the Syrian war, a longer protection period would be warranted.
Today, the political landscape is looking increasingly favourable for a bulked-up CPA. To be sure, the U.S. has only welcomed 1,500 Syrian refugees, though the administration has signalled it will take in at least another 10,000 Syrians over the next year. Fourteen Senate Democrats also wrote a letter last May urging the Obama administration to resettle at least 65,000 Syrian refugees. And while security concerns around resettlement are understandable, they can easily become misplaced. Existing U.S. policy sees all resettlement cases not only passing through multiple in-depth and in-person interviews with UNHCR, but then transferred to the State Department, for additional extensive interviews with Homeland Security Officers. Any Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) members who are targeting the U.S. will have little reason to subject themselves to this level of scrutiny. The political winds are also rapidly changing in allied capitals. Germany recently decided that it will process all asylum seekers who applied on its territory, and the United Kingdom's Prime Minister David Cameron has reversed himself and agreed to take an additional 20,000 over the next five years. Australia has announced that it will take an extra 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq, while Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised to bring an additional 10,000 to Canada (his electoral rivals have promised to bring in 46,000 by 2019 and 25,000 by January 2016, respectively).
A key component of this global resettlement scheme would be safe UNHCR-run processing centers in Turkey and in either Libya or Tunisia to process asylum claims. A safe processing center deters refugees from crossing the Mediterranean and centralizes coordination of the screening and processing of individual refugee claims. UNHCR has noted that such centers could be legal under international law if they clearly reflect the 1951 Refugee Convention. Critically, the centers would need to be safe and agreements would need to be made with the individual host countries. Turkey, likely, would support such an initiative. Given the current insecurity in Libya, however, a center would either need international protection (such as with peacekeepers) even with government consent, or alternatively could be established along the border in Tunisia.
Overall, this proposed global program will save lives — a lot of them — and does not ask decision-makers to move too far ahead of the politics. Most importantly, it would significantly increase the burden sharing between the refugee-hosting countries around Syria and the developed world.
Orchard is a senior lecturer in international relations and peace and conflict studies at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and the research director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. Schroeder is professorial lecturer and director of the Global Governance, Politics & Security Program at the School of International Service at American University.