With the number of Syrian refugees in the Middle East hitting 3 million, it's worth examining how the United States and other countries not on the frontline of the conflict have stepped in to help countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. These countries have the misfortune to be neighbors not only of Syria, but of Iraq and Israel/Palestine as well, other places that have been the source of millions of refugees.
Consider this: Lebanon is hosting 1.14 million refugees from Syria, the equivalent of 83 million refugees in the United States -- or the combined population of California, Texas, and New York. And what has the United States done to relieve the human burden on Lebanon and Syria's other neighbors? In the first 10 months of fiscal year 2014, the US admitted a grand total of 63 Syrian refugees.
As a principle of basic fairness, there is no reason why a country that has the bad luck of bordering another country that is hemorrhaging refugees should be expected to bear that burden alone. But as a legal principle, such countries have a solitary obligation not to push refugees back to places where they would be persecuted or subjected to other serious harm.
The drafters of the Refugee Convention recognized this problem in 1951 when they wrote in its preamble that "the grant of asylum may place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries," and that "a satisfactory solution of [the refugee] problem... cannot... be achieved without international co-operation."
Aside from Germany, which has pledged 25,500 humanitarian admissions, the response of US partners has been as paltry as that of the United States. So far, about 12,000 refugees have been resettled outside the region (and only about 25 percent of those with full refugee status), about 0.4 percent of the registered refugee population. The United Kingdom has pledged to take several hundred Syrian refugees, but as of June had admitted only 50.
To their credit, the US and the UK are the first and third largest bilateral donors to UN appeals on behalf of Syrian internally displaced persons and refugees. But other donors are lagging behind. Last week the UN reported that its Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan for aid inside Syria was only 30 percent funded and that the funding shortfall was creating a "particularly dire" situation. The UN's Syria Refugee Response Plan for neighboring countries is not much better, only 45 percent funded.
That Syrian refugees get even modest levels of international support is more than can be said for refugees displaced from other contemporary crises that are farther off the international radar screen. Refugees and displaced people in other current, lesser-known emergencies in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, not to mention those uprooted by chronic, unresolved conflicts in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Sudan can hardly hope for the barest of crumbs from the coffers of the international donor community and the prospects for resettlement are infinitesimal.
We who live in the prosperous countries of the world should count our blessings, or the sheer dumb luck of our place of birth. This should not be cause for complacency or smug superiority, however, but rather should inspire us, as the Refugee Convention suggests, to open our hearts -- and better yet, our wallets and doors -- to people who through no fault of their own are left homeless by the forces of violence and hatred.