Seventy-six years ago, in May 1939, the German ocean liner the St. Louis left Hamburg for Cuba. Nearly all of the 937 passengers were Jews fleeing the Nazis. But Cuba admitted only 28, and President Roosevelt, bowing to widespread anti-immigrant sentiment, denied entry to the rest. The St. Louis was forced back to Europe, where 254 of its passengers perished in the Holocaust.
After World War II, the world community agreed—with the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and Protocol—that refugees should never again be returned to persecution. Providing safe haven is a fundamental responsibility of democratic nations, grounded in both international law and basic decency.Today there are more refugees and displaced people in the world than at any time since World War II. Yet once again the United States and its allies are failing to rise to the challenge. While some countries have done their part, and the U.S. is the largest donor to the U.N. refugee agency, the international community is too often failing to protect the persecuted.
This collective lack of political will has left refugees incarcerated, imperiled, and sometimes dead as they struggle to overcome barriers governments have erected to prevent them from reaching safety in their territories. Countless vulnerable people have been abandoned, blocked, and mistreated by governments that have the capacity and obligation to help.
A new crisis has developed in Southeast Asia, where thousands of Rohingya have taken to the sea to escape persecution in Burma. Such scenes are tragically common today as wars, chaos, and mass atrocities drive exoduses. The largest continues to be in and around Syria, where the war has forced about four million people to leave the country. Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are hosting the overwhelming majority, and the strain on these countries is growing. They’re slamming their doors shut, leaving many refugees trapped.Syrian refugees are among those making the perilous trip across the Mediterranean to Europe. The journey is especially dangerous from lawless Libya, where smugglers are transporting refugees on rickety boats. Many of the refugees are Eritreans fleeing repression by their government. (Recently, three Eritreans, pressured by Israel to leave the country under a policy to expel “infiltrators,” were reportedly beheaded by ISIL in Libya.) This year alone, more than 1,800 people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean.
The need for leadership is urgent. The U.S. and its European allies should launch an effort to champion and strengthen the refugee protection system built in the wake of World War II. To that end, they should forge legal routes to safety for both refugees and migrants, and ensure that all are treated in accordance with international law.
To prevent catastrophe, the U.S. government should press Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia to rescue and provide safe haven to the endangered Rohingya. This week, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to shelter some of the refugees and migrants, though only for one year. But without immediate search-and-rescue, thousands may perish.
Search and rescue should also be the focus in the Mediterranean. European Union countries plan to launch a naval mission against smugglers in Libya and Libyan waters. While this might prevent deaths at sea, it won’t provide protection for refugees and migrants. The E.U. is considering a plan for 20,000 resettlement spots—a step in the right direction, but still insufficient. Legal routes for migration are needed too: regular migration and family unification visas would counter smugglers by removing their main income source.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and its allies should ensure Syrians seeking to flee are not trapped and should help cover the cost of hosting them. As part of this effort, the U.S. and its allies should launch a global initiative to resettle Syrian refugees. The U.S. has resettled only about 800 since the beginning of the war. It should take in at least 65,000 by the end of 2016, and significantly more in following years, as long as the need remains.
Such an effort would save lives and help persuade other countries to do more. Also, to lead by example, the U.S. should stop its decades-old practice of returning Haitians intercepted at sea without any meaningful refugee screening. In this hemisphere, the emphasis should be on saving lives and prosecuting smugglers.
The U.S. should also stop warehousing women and children asylum-seekers from Central America. Many fled horrific violence only to be locked up. The Obama administration should scrap its policy of family detention in favor of proven alternatives, which would spare women and children the trauma of incarceration and help them access legal assistance.
Refugees are the very embodiment of upheaval. Today, many are fleeing crises that the U.S. and its allies helped to create. We should work to resolve the underlying causes of flight. But in the meantime, we must help refugees reach safety.
In 1939, as the St. Louis passed Florida on its way back to Germany, passengers sent a cable to President Roosevelt asking for refuge. The cable was never answered. But the history of today’s refugee crises is still unwritten.