June 20 is World Refugee Day. Let’s use the opportunity of this annual commemoration by the United Nations to put the “refugee crises” facing the U.S. and Israel in perspective with the true crisis exploding in Syria.
The United States and Israel are countries built by refugees. A refugee is someone who flees persecution in search of safe haven. In both countries, refugees have proven to be national assets, new citizens highly motivated to contribute to the society that took them in. Moreover, the history and teachings of the Jewish people repeatedly speak to being, and welcoming, refugees.
Yet, as the recent HIAS Report “Resettlement at Risk” discloses, some mayors, governors and state legislatures in the U.S. are saying that refugees pose too big a burden on them. In 2012, the United States brought in 58,179 refugees, and granted political asylum to 29,484 people already here. In Israel, more than 55,000 non-Jewish asylum seekers from Africa have entered the country across the Sinai border over the last six years. While some Israeli citizens have stepped forward to help them, the Israeli government has declared them to be a threat, and branded them “infiltrators” (mishtanenim). An on-line petition sympathetic to the plight of these asylum seekers calls “on the nations of the world to accept their responsibility of resolving the African refugee crisis” in Israel.
These statistics pale in comparison to those of the Syrian refugee crisis that has the potential for de-stabilizing the entire Middle East. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has documented 92,901 people killed in Syria since the conflict began last year. The true number, she admits, is probably much higher. Of the dead, at least 6,561 were minors, and 1,729 were under 10 years old. While the brutality of the Assad regime is well documented, atrocities are being committed by opposition forces as well. As Pillay said last week, there are “well documented cases of children being tortured and executed,”…. with “civilians bearing the brunt of widespread, violent and often indiscriminate attacks.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugees who just fled the city of Qusayr described a “city reduced to rubble…There was no food left in the town and no water…people were resorting to squeezing water from the leaves of trees for nourishment.”
The consequence of the Syrian conflict is an overwhelming number of refugees: as of last week, there were 1,643,701 Syrian refugees and 4,250,000 internally displaced persons. Turkey, with a population of 73.6 million, is hosting 380,650 refugees. Proportionally that would be like the U.S. having an influx of 1.7 million refugees over the course of 18 months. The situation in Jordan and Lebanon is even more unimaginable. Jordan, a country of 6.2 million, is hosting 479,429 refugees. Lebanon, a country of 4.3 million, is already hosting 530,410 Syrian refugees. (As a UNHCR spokesperson said last week, “there is probably not a town in Lebanon that does not have Syrian refugees.”) Proportionally, that would amount to 38 million refugees pouring into the U.S. over the course of 18 months. And by the time you read this, those numbers will be thousands higher. (For the most up to date statistics, click here