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The Syrian refugee crisis won't be solved with small gestures

In 1939, America denied asylum to a boatload of Jews, forcing them back to Europe, where 254 died in the Holocaust. Will we repeat the same mistake today?
A Syrian refugee reacts while travelling in an overcrowded dinghy as it arrives at a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey, Sept. 25, 2015. (Photo by Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)
A Syrian refugee reacts while travelling in an overcrowded dinghy as it arrives at a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey, Sept. 25, 2015.

The image of three-year old Aylan Kurdi washed ashore on a Turkish beach provoked the conscience of the world. But photos don’t resolve crises—leaders do. The plight of Syrian refugees—caught between Assad’s barrel bombs and ISIS’s medieval brutality—is a defining moment for American leadership. How we respond will resonate in the region and around the world for decades to come.

Given its proximity to Syria, Europe has a responsibility to help. This is certainly a political challenge on a continent where neo-fascist parties have ascended by stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, and some governments—Hungary, most notably—have responded with hostility. Thankfully, the German government is defying the demagogues, pledging to welcome 500,000 Syrians a year.

So far, the United States has taken in only 1,434 Syrians. This is a dereliction.'

Even that, however, will not be enough. Our organizations represent victims of persecution and terrorism, and we know from experience that a problem of this magnitude and complexity can’t be solved by piecemeal approaches. The largest refugee crisis since World War II demands a coordinated global response, and that will not happen absent sustained American leadership. 

Last week, the Obama administration submitted its refugee resettlement numbers for next year, and these will be the topic of a Senate Judiciary sub-committee hearing. Its commitment to resettle at least 10,000 Syrians and to raise the overall number of refugees to be resettled by 15,000 is welcome—but inadequate. Our country should be helping many more, given its capacity and legacy of leadership.

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That’s not to say America’s record is unblemished. Politics and bigotry have too often influenced life and death decisions about who gets safe haven, and who is left to the wolves. A particularly dark stain came in 1939, when President Roosevelt bowed to pressure and denied safe haven to a boatload of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. The St. Louis was forced back to Europe, and 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 international law and basic decency—and the U.S. has mostly been at the forefront of the effort to help refugees find it.

Presidents of both parties have led major initiatives to resettle refugees to the U.S. Some 400,000 Eastern Europeans came here after World War II, and our country welcomed more than 600,000 Cubans after Castro came to power. In 1975, President Ford overcame resistance to set up a task-force that in one year resettled 130,000 refugees from Vietnam, and overall several hundred thousand Vietnamese refugees came to the U.S. “Thanks to President Ford's leadership,” wrote Quang X. Pham, a refugee who went on to become the first Vietnamese American pilot in the Marines, “we experienced America's kindness and generosity during our darkest days.”

The generosity that animated these responses has never been forgotten. Now another crisis calls. Although the U.S. has been the largest donor to humanitarian relief efforts, it has taken in only 1,434 Syrians. This is a dereliction.

The United States should pledge to take in 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. This is well within our capacity, and it is a fraction of previous resettlement efforts. To get this done, President Obama should raise the annual ceiling of refugee admissions from 70,000 to 200,000, which would include the 100,000 Syrian refugees. At the same time, the U.S. should continue to lead on aid by increasing humanitarian and development assistance to the region. 

WATCH: Johnson: ‘This year the goal is 10,000’

Taking these steps would enhance U.S. credibility in pressing other countries to both take in more refugees and meet the UN humanitarian appeal for funding. It would also help U.S. advocacy for the protection of refugees in Syria’s bordering states, which continue to bear the brunt of the crisis. It is critical that these countries do not arbitrarily detain refugees or return them to danger, and that they allow them to work and go to school. American pleas to other nations to treat refugees humanely will have greater moral force if the U.S. leads by example.

As is often the case, a moral imperative is also a strategic one. The fate of the Syrian diaspora will have a profound effect on the world. Unless the United States, its European allies, and other wealthy nations change the current course, a generation of Syrian children will grow up poor, uneducated, and alienated. That is a recipe for instability.

We can change that future. At stake is not only the fate of hundreds of thousands of Aylan Kurdis, but the integrity of our commitment to the ideals of human dignity.

Jonathan Greenblatt is the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and Elisa Massimino is the President and CEO of Human Rights First.