“Refugees are flooding Europe. It’s a matter of time before they are hitting Australia and Canada.
“If Canada doesn’t care, they’re living in a fool’s paradise, thinking that it doesn’t concern them … the impact is huge.”
Those prophetic words were spoken by Prof. Rupen Das, director of community development for the Lebanese Society of Education and Development, in regard to the Syrian conflict. It was November 2013, in Beirut, Lebanon.
And now, almost two years later, they are still coming, by the tens of thousands, awash in misery, most carrying nothing but hope, and their children.
The stunning waves of refugees pouring into Europe is unprecedented.
The vast majority of this human tide is from Syria, of course, where almost half the population has fled since civil war began to tear up the country in 2011.
What began as a relative trickle of people leaving the worst of the embattled areas has become a flood.
It seems conceivable that what I witnessed firsthand in Jordan and Lebanon in 2013, covering Canadian Foodgrains Bank refugee relief efforts there, could actually have grown worse.
Yet it has. Two years ago, tiny Lebanon was bursting at the seams with Syrian refugees – in excess of one million. Jordan had taken well over 600,000. Turkey now has nearly two million registered refugees.
As those bordering friendly countries literally filled up with frantic people seeking safety and shelter, a new, hyper-fundamentalist and ultra-violent player – Islamist State, or ISIS – emerged on the bewildering, bloody chessboard of militias and religious factions that is Syria today.
Increasingly desperate eyes turn north – to Europe. The “nirvanas” of Germany, Austria, Italy, France, the UK and Sweden hold the promise of peace, support and jobs.
That thousands have lost their lives in attempting the perilous journey, drowning at sea in horribly overloaded boats, and trudging hundreds of miles with little to no food or shelter, underscores the desperation at the core of this exodus.
Most flee shattered cities, gunfire and death. Others are economic refugees, seeking the basics of a better life.
Now, even generous Germany is struggling under the burden of what is to be an estimated 800,000 asylum seekers and refugees this year. Germany is calling on other EU countries to step up and share the humanitarian effort.
The debate is on in Canada as to how many refugees we can and should take. Our southern neighbours are equally challenged.
There are many Canadians who take the Not In My Back Yard approach. There are fears that ISIS terrorists are planted in the refugee flood. The selfish point is made that we have enough issues of our own, such as homeless and impoverished seniors, without importing new challenges.
They are not groundless arguments, but ones based on a terribly myopic and naive view of the world.
Ten million Syrians remain in their own homes. If even half decide to abandon their country and also head north, along with the hundreds of thousands of other refugees from other war-torn and impoverished areas in that part of the world, the impact on Europe will be crushing – so much so that those economies could be crippled.
Services to help all those people will be overwhelmed. And when all hope is stripped away, it can be replaced quickly by anger and hatred. Imagine millions of disenchanted refugees turning their frustration against governments and citizens.
Widespread turmoil in Europe will fracture global markets, including commerce here. Our NIMBYism won’t mean a thing.
This clearly is a global issue, requiring the humanitarian, political and military efforts of all major countries, including Russia and China.
Taking in refugees is only half the task. The other is to stabilize Syria. That means a global military ground force to eradicate ISIS, and disassemble the battlefield.
The only way the stream of refugees will be stemmed, and even reversed, is to make Syria livable again.
And that’s going to take a tremendous amount of political willpower and, undoubtedly, some lives.
Sitting back as detached observers is absolutely not an option.