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Syrian Refugees Aren't Europe's Burden Alone

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website
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Today's emergency summit meeting on refugee shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea will provide plenty of reinforcement for those who regard the European Union as dysfunctional. Yet the migration crisis shouldn't be solely Europe's responsibility; countries that should be involved are doing even less than the EU members.

After the meeting, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany announced that EU leaders had vowed to triple spending for Operation Triton, which provides search and rescue on the sea routes to Italy, and for Poseidon, which is aimed at stemming the flow of migrants by land and sea to Greece. The two operations are run by Frontex, Europe's border protection agency, and have a combined budget of about 4.1 million euros ($4.4 million), of which Triton receives about 2.9 million euros. The increase would give Triton about the same level of funding as Italy's discontinued Mare Nostrum operation, which saved more migrants from drowning, though also may have contributed to the perception of a safety net for those who were considering making the dangerous voyage.

The document also promises to crack down on people trafficking, work with African and Middle Eastern governments to control migration flows and set up a pilot resettlement program for 5,000 refugees. That number is dwarfed by the 163,000 asylum applications the EU granted last year, but it's not so small compared with the combined EU resettlement quota for cases referred by the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees. In 2014, that quota was 5,535 people. 

Instead of continuing with the uncoordinated processing of asylum claims and setting up small parallel programs, Europe -- and the rest of the world -- could, and should, work with the UNHCR to resolve the Mediterranean crisis. The UN refugee agency is the leading authority on the humanitarian disaster resulting from the civil war in Syria, which has a big role in the recent explosion in human trafficking between North Africa and southern Europe. 

The UNHCR has registered almost 4 million Syrian refugees. Most are in the Middle East. As host to 1.2 million displaced Syrians, Lebanon now has the world's biggest per-capita refugee population. Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and the Kurdish areas of Iraq have taken in the rest. The tens of thousands of Syrians who get on boats to southern Europe represent just a fraction of those affected by the conflict.

The best way to end this humanitarian catastrophe, the biggest since World War II, would be to do something about the root cause, the Syrian war. The European leaders' draft communique promises to "address conflict and instability as key push factors of migration, including in Syria." There's not much they can do, however, about stopping a civil war that even U.S. military intervention shows no sign of stemming.

The alternative is to help the UNHCR provide for the needs of refugees . The agency has come up with a total cost for its program to assist displaced Syrians: $1.3 billion this year. As of April 7, only $136 million had been collected. Here's who contributed and how much:


The European Union is the biggest contributor, followed by Japan. The U.S. hasn't kicked in a penny. 

However, the U.S. does cooperate with the UNHCR on resettling Syrian refugees. Last December, it was reviewing 9,000 UNHCR referrals from Syria and receiving 1,000 more each month. But that should be accompanied by financial backing for the UN agency's efforts on the ground in the Middle East. 

Unlike economic migrants, these refugees often don't want to resettle permanently in the West, and long to return home. The amount required to fund UNHCR programs for Syrian and other refugees is smaller than the EU and the U.S. have pledged to Ukraine this year.

Wealthy Middle Eastern nations, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, are already donors, but they must shoulder a bigger share of the burden -- both because they can afford to and because it is in their interest to restore stability to the region.

And Western nations can afford to accept more refugees. Francois Crepeau, the UN's special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, said this in an interview yesterday:

We could collectively offer to resettle 1 million Syrians over the next five years. For a country like the UK, this would probably be around 14,000 Syrians a year for five years. For Canada, it would mean less than 9,000 a year for five years – a drop in the bucket. For Australia, it would probably be less than 5,000 per year for five years. We can manage that.

To mitigate any nationalist backlashes in the host nations, quotas could be established based on population size. That, however, would require involving countries beyond just the EU. Such a gathering of world leaders could also decide on funding for the UNHCR Middle Eastern program that would keep most of the refugees relatively well-provided for in their native region until the war ends and they can go home. 

(Updates first and second paragraphs to reflect funding announcement by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at