A Salvadoran father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande last week. Hundreds of children detained in deplorable conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border. More than 60,000 migrant children picked up by the Department of Homeland Security in a recent 40-day period. The numbers add to the unfathomable record of 70.8 million people counted globally as of December who had fled their homes as a result of war, persecution, and other conflict, according to a new report from the United Nations. The figure represented an increase of 2.3 million from a year earlier. More than 41 million sought sanctuary within their own countries. And almost 26 million had crossed borders and were officially classified as refugees, half of them children. The remaining 3.5 million of the total were awaiting decisions on applications for asylum to find refuge abroad.
The report by the U.N. refugee agency on June 19 drew wide attention from news media. But, as has been the case for years, most of the talk of possible solutions — including for the current migration crisis at the southern border of the United States – focuses on how to handle the never-ending flow of people: how to resettle them, how to secure their rights, whether to build a wall or send them back.
What oddly gets short shrift is the most durable solution of all: resolving the violent conflicts and persecution that are driving people from their homes in the first place. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees notes in this year’s report that more than two-thirds of the 20.4 million refugees under its own purview come “from just five countries: Syria (6.7 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), South Sudan (2.3 million), Myanmar (1.1 million), and Somalia (900,000).”
But political leaders and officials seem to have largely given up on trying to broker peace and address the root causes of forced migration. Their excuses: It’s too hard; it takes too long; it costs too much. Former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein recently noted that in the early days of the war in Syria, there was at least vociferous condemnation from the world’s political leaders. Now, when similar incidents occur in Yemen – for example, when a missile from the Saudi-led coalition hit a bus of schoolchildren — barely a peep can be heard from today’s leaders.
“Most of our political leaders are morally weak, shortsighted, and mediocre,” Zeid proclaimed in a video op-ed for the New York Times. “It used to be that abuses were called out, and many were stopped. Human rights violators had something to fear. But today, the silence of those public officials is astounding.”
As U.N. Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Ursula Mueller challenged the Security Council one day last month, “Can’t this Council take any concrete action when attacks on schools and hospitals have become a war tactic that no longer sparks outrage?”
The Real Moral and Financial Costs
When will enough really be enough to spur serious, sustained action? After experiences like the migration crisis that rocked the European Union in 2015 and 2016, the influx to Bangladesh of Rohingya people fleeing genocide in Myanmar, and the current wrenching debates over family separation and detention conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border, isn’t it time for the West to refocus on resolving – and preventing – violent conflicts where they begin? Is it really that much more difficult and costly – morally as well as financially – than coping with the fallout?
Evidence shows success is not impossible. It requires world leaders to invest the necessary political capital to negotiate peaceful outcomes; to allot resources for diplomacy; to back it up, when necessary and appropriate to the specific situation, with carefully calibrated sanctions or military firepower; and to provide the sustained support needed to help countries recover from war or even help prevent conflicts from turning violent at all.
In issuing this year’s report, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi noted that 50,000 Gambians returned to their country after the international community helped resolve a violent conflict there in 2016. In the 1990s, the U.S. backed up its diplomacy aimed at ending the wars in Bosnia and later Kosovo with bold but calibrated military interventions supported by NATO that helped turn back the main belligerent and, arguably, prevent further atrocities.
Military intervention should be a last resort, of course, and it’s remarkable what smart diplomacy and foreign assistance can do instead. In Central America, where shocking rates of violence have driven people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the United States in record numbers, the U.S. government has been working with El Salvador in the last few years to improve security, strengthen civil society, and develop that country’s economy. As the homicide rate there began to decline as a result, and residents felt more safe, the number of Salvadorans apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped by more than half.
And yet, President Donald Trump wants to slash assistance for the three countries, saying they still haven’t done enough to stem the flow of migrants. The State Department last week revealed specifics of the plans to cut hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, despite clear evidence that the flow of migrants to the U.S. border is due to exactly the factors that this aid is intended to mitigate.
It’s that kind of inconsistency and a pattern of launching diplomatic or aid initiatives and then starving them of resources and constructive high-level attention that repeatedly undermines even the most valiant efforts.
Too Many Dead to Count
In Syria, the world has stood by as the death toll surged to 400,000 in the first five years of the war; the U.N. stopped counting because the chaos made it impossible to keep track. Half the country’s people – half — had fled their homes in the first three years after fighting began in March 2011. But even as U.S. and U.N. diplomats have labored to broker a lasting peace – or even to achieve ceasefires that stick for longer than it takes the ink to dry, Western political leaders have put little effort, after the first couple of years, into the kind of staunch public advocacy, private pressure, effective sanctions, and judicious military action that might help break the logjam of war.
During the Obama administration, the U.S. used the vast majority of its military might in Syria to fight ISIS rather than attempting to curb the brutality of Bashar al-Assad’s military (for a number of reasons I won’t delve into here). Some diplomats were so frustrated that 51 officials took the rare step in 2016 of using the State Department’s “dissent” channel to urge air strikes that they believed would end Assad’s persistent ceasefire violations. Certainly the debate over the potential efficacy – and consequences — of U.S. military action against Assad has been vociferous, and rightfully so. But so has the debate over the consequences of not intervening.
The Trump administration, for its part, has stepped out of its anti-ISIS fight in Syria only long enough for two brief retaliatory strikes against Assad’s military for using chemical weapons. In the absence of any other direct military action to curb Assad, the effect has been, as former Ambassador Fred Hof noted for the Atlantic Council recently, to signal that any conventional offensive by Syrian forces, no matter how devastating, will be entirely within bounds, including Assad’s repeated use of barrel bombs.
Most recently, Assad began what the New York Times described on May 20 as “a long, slow and violent campaign to recapture the last province in the country still under opposition control,” Idlib province. On one day earlier in the month, government forces reportedly dropped 13 barrel bombs in Idlib and neighboring Hama provinces and conducted 33 airstrikes. A May 30 headline in the New York Times illustrates the ramifications: “Huge Wave of Syrians Flee Intensified Bombing on Last Rebel-Held Province.”
In Yemen, the U.S. gives lip service to peace talks while providing weapons and other military support to a coalition led by Saudi Arabia that has three times bombed hospitals run by Doctors Without Borders and this year struck a hospital supported by Save the Children. A December agreement in Stockholm forestalled a potentially catastrophic battle over the port of Hodeidah, but that pact, too, is shaky. At least 10,000 people have died in the Yemen conflict and 3 million have fled their homes.
Afghanistan Talks Resume This Week
The United States is also trying to broker a peace for Afghanistan. A seventh round of negotiations is due to open in Qatar later this week. But the U.S. motives are driven by a domestic political promise to withdraw U.S. troops. To do so quickly means downplaying the potential risks – that the local branches of ISIS and al-Qaeda will gain new ground, that the weak and corrupt government in Kabul will fall, and that any progress made for Afghanistan’s women and girls will be lost. Such consequences also would likely mean more refugees streaming out of Afghanistan.
Whether keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan indefinitely would help or hurt has been a source of debate almost since the beginning. The U.S. has twice experimented with troop drawdowns, and both times found itself returning more military force to steady a shaky security and political landscape. U.S. diplomatic and assistance efforts also tend to wane in the absence of U.S. troops to protect them.
These patterns – a spurt of high-level activity followed by months or years of neglect — reveal a more fundamental contradiction in U.S. policy and political rhetoric: the U.S. government pumps money into the military but has become more and more reluctant to use it, while at the same time starving the very mechanisms that might accomplish the goal of reducing deployments – diplomacy and foreign assistance. The Politifact website reported in 2017 that the U.S. Foreign Service had about 14,000 personnel, compared with the Defense Department’s 1.3 million troops on active duty. The disparity is so severe that even defense and military leaders have pleaded with the White House and Congress for years to provide more resources to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
It all raises the question of whether the U.S. is really serious about stemming the flow of migrants. (And let’s be clear, most would far-and-away rather stay at home if conditions allowed, and refugees from war and oppression end up not in the United States or in Europe, but in a country right next door — see Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon for Syrians, and Colombia and Peru for Venezuelans.)
If the agonizing about migrants is genuine rather than politically convenient, it’s time to apply the prodigious talents, skills, and still surprisingly robust political capital of the United States to tackling these problems at their source.