National Security & Defense

Europe and the Refugees

Migrants head to a transit camp in Bapska, Croatia. (David Ramos/Getty)

The current refugee crisis in East and North Africa, the Middle East, and Southern and Central Europe is the most severe that has occurred in the world since World War II, and in some respects resembles the gigantic flows of population that fled before the barbarians west into Europe in the last days of the Roman Empire. In the last year of World War II, up to 12 million ethnic Germans fled westward before the Red Army in 1944 and 1945, 2 million being evacuated over the Baltic Sea from January to May 1945, about six times as many as the number of British and French forces evacuated from Dunkirk in ten days in 1940. The Wilhelm Gustloff, a 25,000-ton adapted German liner, was torpedoed by a Russian submarine on the night of January 30, 1945, and approximately 7,000 civilians drowned, vastly more than the tragic drownings of migrants in recent years, and almost three times the number of people as perished in the much more famous sinkings of the Titanic (1912) and Lusitania (1915) combined. There were immense flows of other displaced populations, mainly Slavs, and the total numbers probably exceeded what is now afoot. But these were Germans and other European nationalities being reunited with their homelands as borders moved under the onslaught of armies. They were members of more-developed nationalities and generally somewhat better qualified to make their way when ordinary circumstances returned than are the tens of millions of war-torn or famished wandering masses of Africa and the Middle East today.

What is occurring now is the final collapse of the post-colonial world in those continents, and a reversion, in many cases, to a form of life as primitive as what preceded the takeover of those vast territories by Europeans and Turks. The Ottoman Empire was carved up by the British and French after World War I, and the struggles between the Israelis and Arabs, between the Christians and Muslims and others in Lebanon, between the various tribes of Syria, and between the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis of Iraq have resulted. Conflict between the Bedouins and Palestinians in Jordan has been kept at sporadic levels. For some time the assertion of influence by the major Western Powers somewhat stabilized boundaries and regimes in the region, but now we appear to be in the early stages of a reassertion of spheres of influence by the traditional regional powers: Turkey, Egypt, and Persia (Iran), with the addition of the oil-rich Saudis as champions of the Gulf States.

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There are 52 countries in Africa (compared with only 35 in North and South America combined — including the Caribbean — where there are no serious border disputes). The African boundaries were demarcated largely by the Marquess of Salisbury, British prime minister for most of the period between 1885 and 1902. The borders were drawn with little regard to tribal or even topographical realities. Much of Africa is seething with ethnic conflict, aggravated by the ravages of famine, backwardness, and official corruption. These facts make the current torrent of refugees, many ultimately seeking entry to Europe, a vastly different challenge from that of relocating Europeans within Europe after World War II, which took five or more years to work out and all the skill and generosity of the most advanced countries.

There are now nearly 60 million refugees in the world, and nearly 20 million have fled their countries.

What precipitated the current crisis was the Syrian civil war, the struggle between the constituent elements in Iraq, the continuing effort of Turkey to suppress its 20 million Kurds, Sunni–​Shiite violence in much of the Middle East, the breakdown of order in Libya, the descent into failed states of Somalia and Yemen, and the genocidal onslaught of the Sudanese Muslims on the South Sudan Christians. The traditional Great Powers have effectively given up trying to sort out these countries and are desultorily supporting local groups. Israel alone, of the indigenous powers, operates a prosperous and functioning democracy near the forefront of modern economic and political states. The vast American effort in Iraq, including two successful invasions, has been an almost unmitigated fiasco, apart from the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and most of Iraq is now effectively run by Iran, to which the traditional Great Powers (U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China, and Russia), have effectively conceded nuclear weapons, at best over a term of ten years. The Sunni backlash against the rise of the Shiites in Iraq has spawned the Islamic State (ISIS), the current champion of barbarism in a region that regularly astounds the world by its penchant for torture, public executions, and filmed and universally transmitted decapitations of innocent victims. The Russians and Iranians support the beleaguered Russo-Iranian puppet leader of Syria, Assad, against ISIS. Turkey supports ISIS because of its intense dislike of Assad, and the West and Egypt and the Saudis support secular anti-Assad, anti-ISIS elements in Syria, but millions of Syrians have been displaced within their country, and at least a million have taken refuge in Lebanon and Jordan, and over 2 million in Turkey. There are now nearly 60 million refugees in the world, nearly 20 million have fled their countries, over 5 million are Palestinian refugees, nearly 2 million are asylum-seekers, and the remaining 33 million refugees are internally displaced persons, including over 4 million Syrians.

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The addition, to these desperate fugitives from violence in Syria and Iraq, of millions of Africans fleeing violence within their own countries or making their desperate way out of Africa and through the Middle East overland or across the Mediterranean has made this one of the largest migrations in history both in its numbers and in its geographic proportions. In 2014 and the first half of 2015, the European Union received over a million migrant applications. The political complexities of Europe, parts of which are already grappling with a large and restive or even disaffected Muslim population, have generated severe strains within the Union. Under EU rules, if a migratory entrant cannot find another EU state to move on to, the migrant becomes the responsibility of the state where the EU was first entered. This puts immense pressure on the border states — Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and Italy in particular. The rather insouciant position of the German chancellor, Frau Merkel, that the Syrian refugees were, in general, welcome, quickened the step of millions trying to put the wretchedness and violence of the Middle East and Africa behind them and toiling onward toward beckoning Germany as if seduced by the Lorelei.

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Merkel initially sought to relieve the pressure on Hungary by saying that Syrian refugees would be welcome in Germany, where the federal government admits them but the 16 states in the country are required to provide for them. A large number are untrained, unintelligible in German or any Western language, and in poor medical condition. The sociological challenges in admitting, as is now anticipated, about a million such people has transformed “the September fairy tale” of Germany as munificent sanctuary for the oppressed, a role whose appeal is obvious for a country with Germany’s legacy of less benign conduct still within the living memory of many, has given way to a scramble to redistribute some of the refugees already in and close the frontiers to those who answered Merkel’s siren call after the first wave. She has been engaged in sharp disputes with EU neighbors about their respective obligations, as it appears that the migrants could ultimately try to sponsor the admission of 6 million or so relatives, in addition to their proverbial fecundity. What began as an admirable humanitarian impulse quickly became, politically, a near suicide mission, and the chancellor is trying to use Germany’s influence within the EU to spread this intake around. France, the second-most powerful country within the euro zone (the U.K. is in the EU but not the euro), has already served notice it won’t stand for any of it (though France has been a generous recipient of Muslim immigration), and the specter of internal frontiers’ going up again within Europe is a cruel irony to so committed a Eurofederalist as Merkel.

#share#What is needed is an international solution consisting of several steps: All those who have fled their countries but not been granted asylum elsewhere should be settled in humane, properly maintained camps, while serious efforts are made to make their native countries inhabitable. In Syria, obviously ISIS must be repulsed and crushed, and the Western aversion to using forces on the ground is illogical, given the large deployments to less-sensible conflicts in the area in recent times. It particularly does not behoove the United States, whose interventions have unintentionally delivered most of Iraq to Iranian suzerainty, to say it will accept only a tokenistic number of refugees from its own mistaken initiatives. Obviously, incomers must be carefully screened, but the United States cannot shirk its partial responsibility for this cascade of disasters.

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Assad has to go, and the Russians and the West (including, for these purposes, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) should find some acceptable substitute. It is no legitimate business of Iran’s who governs in Damascus, and the conduit from Iran to Syria to Hezbollah and Hamas must be closed. These aren’t life-or-death issues to Putin, and his adherence can be bought; if his price is too steep, Russia should just be evicted — it is in no position to argue the issue with a united West with some renascent leadership. What is needed is to draw a few red lines and enforce them. The same powers that caved in to Iranian nuclear ambitions should impose upon the Palestinians the recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and, on that condition, begin the return of Palestinian refugees to a new Palestine, narrower than the old West Bank and deeper than Gaza has been, the two entities connected but disarmed other than as required for effective police work.

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If the nearly 2 million asylum-seekers are distributed around the civilized world, and the Syrians and Palestinians arevenabled to return by imposition of reasonable resolutions of the conflicts that drove them out originally, 60 percent of the refugees will have been resettled. Most of the rest will require not only more generous provision for temporary accommodation, but more-effective international intervention to bring many horrible and long-running conflicts in Africa and the Middle East to an end, by some combination of brokered reconciliation and Solomonic partition. Historically, Great Powers often acted irresponsibly, and much of their colonial policy was in that category, but at least they acted effectively. This is what has been missing almost since the Gulf War ejected Saddam from Kuwait. Terrorism was not strangled in its cradle; a blind eye was turned to genocide in Rwanda, nothing effective has been done about Syria, and Iran, the world’s premier terrorism-supporting state, has been appeased.

#related#Canada’s incoming government has advised the U.S. that it will withdraw its token contribution to the anti-ISIS bombing campaign, though it will continue to train anti-ISIS forces and will increase humanitarian aid. The reason is not that anyone in Canada fails to appreciate the evil of ISIS. It is, though the prime minister–elect, Justin Trudeau, was probably too diplomatic to put it this way, that no sane government leader can have unqualified confidence in the will or competence of this American administration to lead an alliance, as the United States did, not infallibly but with conspicuous success, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to at least the early Clinton years. President Obama appears determined to create and recognize some sort of Palestinian state; on past form, the result will be war, not peace, and the Palestinians are even less able to sustain a war than the Syrians and Iraqis have been. The world awaits new governments in Washington and Paris, to rally the incumbents in Berlin and London to a more purposeful stance. It will probably happen, but the sorrows that may come in the meantime are a sobering prospect. It was not so long ago that Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand, Brian Mulroney, and St. John Paul II led us to a bloodless victory in the Cold War. The adversary is not so strong now; the failings, as usual, are in ourselves.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He will be away next week; his column will return the week of November 16.

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