According to the figures released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) on Sept 1, 351,000 migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe, 60% more than in all of 2014. That includes 2,643 lives lost crossing the Mediterranean. On Sept 2, the whole world was shaken by the image of the body of a 3-year-old boy washed up on a Turkish beach.
The refugees come from war-torn countries in the Middle East and North Africa, the great majority being Syrians and Iraqis. They are risking their lives simply in order to survive. Europe now faces the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II. The brawl between EU member states over refugee distribution is further crippling the continent struggling to recover from the debt crisis and the conflict in Ukraine. On Sept 9, a plan was finally announced by the EU to relocate 160,000 refugees, calling for European solidarity among member states. But the crisis is far from over and continues to draw the attention of the world.
When I was working in Iraq and Syria several decades ago, it was a totally different picture there. Neither was a “heaven for democracy” as some would wish them to be, but those two countries did enjoy stability and economic growth, at least in a relative sense. I was often impressed by the warm personality of the people there. What the two countries look like today offers a stark contrast to those memories. The war in Iraq sowed the seeds of instability and the US-led military intervention in the “Arab Spring” spread turbulence across the region, turning it into the hotbed for terrorism. Though the refugee crisis broke out only recently, its root cause can easily be traced to America’s self-righteous actions and foreign policy mistake.
Following the Iraq War in 2003, millions of refugees swarmed into Iraq’s western neighbors, including Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. With these countries as a buffer, Europe was largely unaffected by that wave of refugees. Since the end of 2010, several countries in the Middle East and North Africa have been thrown into turmoil. The opposition in countries like Syria which enjoyed EU and US support is attempting to overthrow the government by force, pulling the trigger on the crisis of refugees. By this time, however, few Middle Eastern countries have enough means to accommodate them, hence the “exodus” to Europe. Europe has a moral and legal responsibility to find a solution.
The crisis has got everyone thinking: What has gone wrong? Following the end of the Cold War, ideology, culture and values have become the new strategic high ground for superpowers. As the only superpower in the world, the United States has acquired the hobby of exporting its “smart power” to create a unipolar world. As time goes by, the style of its cultural expansion and export of values has gone from confident to arrogant, ignoring the importance of cultural and religious diversity to the world. Terms invented by American think-tanks like “smart power”, “rogue state”, “failed state” and “axis of evil” highlight the country’s ability to set the rules and agenda for the world. But to be frank, they have chipped away the fundamental balance in global values. Certain Middle East countries have tried to Americanize themselves across the board without recognizing their cultural traditions and national circumstances. The result is not a pleasant one.
The crisis has taught us that we are living in a shrinking global village. Everything we do affects someone else. No country can deal successfully with any regional or international issue alone. There must be common efforts in finding solutions. The refugee crisis is testing the core values that Europe has for centuries been proud of — freedom and tolerance. European countries ought to explore more ways for refugees to enter through normal and legal means and relax control on entry, family reunion and access to assistance. This is truly a moment of reexamining the EU spirit.
While helping the people in the Middle East fleeing from conflict zones, the more important thing is to address the refugee issue from the root. This crisis can also be an opportunity for the world to agree on a joint front against ISIS and all other extremist organizations. The UN must play a leading role in developing a reconciliation process in all parts of the world — and call for a political solution to the Syrian crisis and other armed conflicts so that the Middle East can move toward stability and allow its people enjoy a normal life. This is the only lasting solution to the refugee issue.