The U.S. would not respond better than Europe to the refugee crisis

A Budapest railway station in early September 2015 held about 10,000 refugees who had been declined further passage. Credit: Wassilios Aswestopoulos/NurPhto

By sheer geographic luck, the United States does not have to deal with the increasing inflow of refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The rapid increase coupled with terrible policies across the European Union brought a long-standing crisis to the world’s stage. People are dying trying to flee conflict and poverty for Turkey, Greece and Italy as ports of entry to Europe.

If faced with the same crisis, there is little reason to believe the U.S. would do much better than some of Europe’s worst countries. The country is not carrying its weight with regard to taking in refugees and the strident attitudes about immigration show the same concerns that led to anti-foreigner demonstrations in Europe are just as prevalent here.

Immigration is a heated topic in the U.S. thanks to comments from presidential hopefuls, including Donald Trump and Jeb Bush. Trump specifically saw his campaign take off in terms of attention and positive polling numbers following his strong statements on stopping immigrants from entering the U.S. At the core, the businessman and entertainer wants to finish a 2,000 mile wall along the Mexican border and deport the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S.

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It is not a fringe idea. A poll in of Iowans likely to attend the Republican presidential caucuses found that 45 percent agree with Trump’s deportation plan. While a subsection of voters from a Midwestern state does not represent the rest of the country, it is clear that anti-immigrant feelings are a significant presence in the national landscape.

Near-weekly reports of hundreds of deaths and thousands of rescues in the Mediterranean Sea just a few months ago garnered little public attention. It took protests and wall building to prevent refugees from entering Hungary and louder calls from political leaders to do something about the refugee crisis to make headlines. And the peak may be the decision by numerous publications to put an image of a dead body of a drowned Syrian refugee boy on their front pages.

“They are extraordinary images and serve as a stark reminder that, as European leaders increasingly try to prevent refugees from settling in the continent, more and more refugees are dying in their desperation to flee persecution and reach safety,” said the editors from the U.K. newspaper The Independent.

There is somewhat of a precedent in the U.S. for a similar crisis. The number of Central American children entering the U.S. unaccompanied suddenly doubled in 2014. Politicians used the crisis to show how their views on immigration were confirmed by the surge. President Obama went as far as requesting $3.7 billion to address what he called “an urgent humanitarian situation.”

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That ask was met with both support and rabid opposition. The crisis eventually subsided as the number of unaccompanied child migrants fell by 40 percent in a matter of months. It reinforced the notion that migrants entering the U.S. illegally, regardless of the reason, were not welcome.

“The message has to be, ‘If you cross our border illegally, you will be returned immediately,'” said Arizona Sen. John McCain, at the time.

Given the backlash to a much smaller surge of migrants and the current political climate, it is hard to imagine the U.S. welcoming refugees and migrants as seen in Germany, for example. The current crisis shows the best and the worst of countries, the U.S. is lucky it is not taking this test – for it surely would fail.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.