When a photograph of a drowned refugee child from Syria was published in newspapers around the world last week, the head of a far-right party in France called the image disturbing, but not for reasons you might guess.
The photo, said Marine Le Pen of the National Front, was being used to make Europeans “feel guilty.”
Le Pen was wrong. The photo, by intent or not, made Europeans feel compassion.
Feelings of guilt or innocence are beside the point when hundreds of thousands of people pour across national borders to flee war, persecution and poverty. In that moment, the human emotion that matters most is compassion.
Germany, Sweden and France have taken the lead in addressing this humanitarian crisis. To their credit, they are caring for and resettling huge numbers of refugees from Syria and other countries in crisis. Germany alone, a country of 80 million people, is expected to take in some 800,000 refugees by year’s end.
But the scale of the crisis is massive. Some 11 million Syrians have been displaced by war, including 4 million who already have fled the country. A handful of willing European nations cannot absorb them all. The entire European Union, as well as nations in the Americas, such as the United States, Canada and Brazil, could readily shoulder a greater share of the burden.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proposed a quota system under which all 28 European Union nations would accept a proportionate number of refugees. With those open borders in which Europeans take pride, Merkel argues, come shared responsibilities. Pope Francis essentially endorsed this concept over the weekend, calling on “every parish, every religious community” in Europe to host refugees.
President Obama could signal support for Merkel’s plan — and for Germany’s generosity — by admitting more Syrian refugees into the United States. This year, under an annual ceiling established by the president, the U.S. will open its doors to 70,000 refugees from around the world, including about 2,000 from Syria. Raising the ceiling for Syrians to 65,000, as suggested by 14 senators in a letter last spring to Obama, would not be excessive.
Resistance to refugee resettlement is understandable, especially in Europe, where unemployment averages 9.5 percent. Who will care for all these people? What will it cost? Will they sufficiently assimilate?
But every indication is that this refugee crisis will only grow, with millions eventually taking to the road. The cost of indifference is great human suffering, and quite possibly a destabilized Europe.
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