“We have not seen a refugee outflow escalate at such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide almost 20 years ago,” said UN Refugee Chief Antonio Guterres this summer, when some 6,000 Syrians were fleeing the country every day. More than one-third of Syria’s population is now estimated to have fled the conflict, with 6.5 million internally displaced and more than 2.3 million refugees outside Syria’s borders.
Syria’s neighbors are overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis. Syrians now constitute more than one-fifth of Lebanon’s inhabitants, and the attendant growing economic burden and religious tensions threaten to pull the country back into civil war. In Jordan, the Zaatari refugee camp has grown from a collection of empty tent grounds in 2012 into what is now one of the country’s largest cities, where 2,000 new refugees arrive every day.
Poor Third World nations are shouldering almost the entire burden. Apart from Syria’s hard-pressed neighbors, significant numbers of refugees have also been received in Egypt, Algeria, Libya, and other Middle Eastern countries. In distant Brazil, the government recently announced the creation of “humanitarian visas” for Syrian refugees. Syrians will now be able to apply for asylum at Brazilian embassies in the Middle East, something that hardly any other state allows.
Rich States Shutting Their Borders
Comparing refugee flows is a tricky business because every nation has its own laws and host countries will admit refugees on different grounds. Some refugees are part of the UN’s organized resettlement program and are funneled away from refugee camps around Syria in an attempt to take the pressure off of the country’s neighbors. Others arrive on their own, often having crossed one or more borders illegally, and are granted asylum or allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds. There are also those who have traveled from Syria on a regular visa, perhaps even before the conflict erupted, who are then allowed to stay past the expiration of their visas because going back would be too dangerous.
But in looking closely at the numbers, a pattern emerges. In almost every case, the states most deeply involved with fanning the flames of the Syrian civil war—like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, and Russia—are also the ones most reluctant to take in its refugees. It is remarkable that a wealthy fellow Arab country like Saudi Arabia (with a population of 28 million), has still not offered to resettle a single Syrian refugee. (To be fair, Saudi Arabia does give significant aid to the refugee camps, unlike Qatar or Russia, which donate hardly anything.)
Of course, these states are hardly known for their commitment to humanitarian principles. But on closer inspection, the democratic governments involved with the war are not much better.
The EU, for example, allows any refugee to apply for asylum on European soil but won’t let refugees cross the border to get there. That means the only practical path to asylum in Europe is to enter the EU with the help of smugglers, which is why the Mediterranean is turning into a mass grave.
The wealthier parts of the world are in fact doing as little as they can to help relieve the pressure on Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. Of the 30,000 refugees the UN is trying to resettle, it has only been able to secure promises for half of that number from a group of wealthy European and American states, and many of those promises are yet to be realized.
The EU: Sweden, Germany, No One Else
In Europe, Germany is the only large nation (with a population of 82 million) making an effort to take in Syrian refugees. It already shelters around 8,000 asylum applicants and recently started bringing in 5,000 more refugees. It is in talks with the UN to eventually resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees, or 80 percent of the EU’s pledges for UN resettlement.
Sweden (with a population of 9 million) has received even higher numbers of refugees, but not on the UN quotas. Instead, it has become the primary destination for private Syrian asylum seekers entering the EU illegally. Since the start of the crisis, Sweden has granted residency status on humanitarian grounds to some 25,000 Syrians, which is the largest number anywhere outside the Middle East (in total, some 50,000 Syrians have applied for asylum in EU countries; that’s 2.4 percent of the global total). In addition, Sweden has informed the UN that it could take 400 refugees on its quota for 2013.
Other EU members generally shirk their responsibility, as documented in a recent report from Amnesty International. In many cases, this reflects a refusal to admit refugees from anywhere, since about half of the EU members accept no UN resettlement of refugees from any conflict in the world. But the situation is especially grim for Syrians. Excluding Germany, the rest of the EU states combined are receiving only 2,340 Syrian refugees via the UN—with, for example, the 47-million-strong nation of Spain having decided that thirty Syrians is all it can manage. And Spain is not even the worst of the lot: eighteen out of 27 EU states have refused to resettle any Syrian refugees at all.
The United Kingdom, with a population of 63 million, and France, with a population of 65 million, which happen to be the only EU members that have consistently pushed for involvement in the Syrian conflict, are both extremely reluctant to give shelter to the victims of that war. The UK has allowed in a couple thousand asylum seekers but zero quota refugees, while France has taken in only around 3,000, including 500 on the UN quota. (The UK is actually doing some good work funding refugee camps for Syrians in the Middle East, but France performs disastrously on that count as well.)
Cold Shoulder From the United States
And what about the United States of America, a superpower with 313 million citizens and an economy surpassing everything else on earth and a country that is deeply involved in the conflict—does it cry out for “your tired, your poor”?
Not quite. According to the U.S. State Department in September 2013, the United States had only granted asylum to “more than 1,000 Syrians” during the entire conflict. Add to that a few thousand visa extensions and plans to resettle an as-yet-undefined number in the low thousands via the UN, but the result will be the same: whether you split it by population or GDP, it’s going to be next to nothing.