Perhaps the biggest tragedy of the West Asian refugee crisis is that it is being perceived as a European problem. The principal argument here is that many EU countries contributed, directly or indirectly, to the multiple crises in the Islamic crescent from Libya to Afghanistan that has caused thousands of its citizens to flee, so it behoves them to help these people. The complicating factor is that not all of these refugees are threatened Christian or Muslim minorities who can seek asylum under the United Nations refugee convention like, say, the Tamils of Sri Lanka did in the 1990s. Many are migrants seeking safer, better lives from civil wars of unprecedented violence. It is true that the 160,000 refugees who have arrived in Europe thus far can scarcely be considered a large number for a continent of 743 million people.
The problem is that the countries where migrants first arrive are struggling with high unemployment rates and negligible growth over the past decade and these factors inevitably play into xenophobia. That is why the "quotas" the EU is trying to impose via a "distribution key" - based on, among other things, national income, population and unemployment - are not working. As a result, much depends on the voluntary generosity of countries, of which Germany and Austria, Europe's best performing economies and first choice of refugees, have proved beacons. France and the UK have belatedly extended help after some domestic criticism. But it has taken a photograph of a drowned toddler and a statement by the Pope to highlight Europe's dilatory response when it comes to the greatest humanitarian crisis of the 21st century so far.
The daily television footage of refugee camps, however, deflects the question of what other countries are doing and it reflects the limits of the UN's powers. So far, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan - countries suffering their own severe economic problems - have borne the brunt of the refugee influx without complaint. But other richer countries appeared to have abdicated their responsibilities. The rich Gulf states, another natural haven, have cynically chosen to pay their way out of the problem. Australia, which sent the third-largest invasion force to Iraq and also operates in Syria, has become a byword for overt race and religious prejudice against West Asian refugees. But perhaps the loudest silence comes from the US, the principal actor in the region. The Obama administration reacted only on September 7 to say it is considering allowing more Syrian refugees, though it did not indicate a date (under federal law, the president must establish the annual refugee ceiling before October 1). This year about 2,000 were admitted, minuscule compared to the numbers queuing at Europe's entrepôts. With a population density of 35 people per square km of land, 120 for EU (232 for Germany), and an economy that is steadily picking up, the US can well afford to accommodate many of the huddled masses yearning for a better life. As an architect of the crisis in the region, it should certainly step up and shoulder the burden.