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Our Fingerprints On Europe’s Refugee Problem

spray-painted text reading 'En 2012, + de 2000 migrants sont morts en Méditerranée'
Graffiti seen in Paris, 2014; translated, the text reads, "In 2012, more than 2000 migrants died in the Mediterranean."
Photo by Denis Bocquet.

The crowds of migrants at the Budapest train station in recent days are the latest symptom of a growing European problem - one with American fingerprints all over it.

Last week, Hungarian authorities closed the city’s main train terminal, stranding about 1,000 migrants, including many refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. The standoff spanned several days, as the station allowed non-migrant passengers with the correct documentation to enter through a side entrance, but used police to keep migrants out, even if they held valid train tickets to Austria or Germany.

Simultaneously, train traffic in the English Channel tunnel was disrupted on the French side when migrants reached the Calais train station. Migrants climbed onto the tracks, forcing service to stop for an extended period and stranding some passengers. Both these incidents occurred only days after a truck was found on an Austrian motorway with the bodies of 71 people inside, at least one of whom was carrying Syrian papers. This is not to mention the hundreds who have drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea this year alone.

Europe’s migrant situation is worsening, but it isn’t new. The Guardian reports that more than 340,000 displaced people have entered EU borders this year, with 100,000 arriving just in July. Many come from North Africa and the Middle East, seeking asylum. The problem has been exacerbated by the rule known as the Dublin Regulation, which states that refugees should seek asylum in the first EU country they enter. But Italy and Greece - hardly the most financially and politically stable EU member countries to begin with - have found themselves overwhelmed by the numbers, prompting many migrants to head north, looking for sanctuary in Germany, Austria or the United Kingdom instead.

The European Union has scheduled an emergency meeting for September 14, in an attempt to address this crisis. In the meantime, responses have varied widely from country to country.

The European refugee crisis has multiple causes, but sadly the fingerprints on it prominently include those of the United States, especially where Syria is concerned. At the outbreak of the rebellion against Bashar Assad, when there was an opportunity to help relatively moderate Syrian opposition including defecting commanders from the Syrian armed forces, we stayed away. We did so because of President Obama’s reflexive aversion to any kind of U.S. military involvement in the region, regardless of either strategic or humanitarian impact. He called the opposition “disorganized, ill-equipped, ill-trained” in an effort to argue that doing nothing was the better choice. Better, for instance, than helping to organize, equip and train it.

The result, four years later, is more than 310,000 Syrians dead and literally millions displaced; the repeated use of chemical weapons with impunity, despite the president’s famous “red line;” and a vast swath of territory controlled by extremists calling themselves the Islamic State, dedicated to the propagation of their own unique brand of barbarity.

Granted, for the most part Europeans were no more interested in ensuring the safety of the newly displaced Syrians in their homeland than we were. In 2011, the EU condemned Assad’s actions against the opposition, but took no action to stop it, and its arms embargo on Syrian rebels was only provisionally lifted in 2013. The United Kingdom and France provided “nonlethal” military aid, such as funding and medical supplies. But much like the U.S. response, European reactions were generally both too little and too late - which has proved markedly short-sighted, since it is physically possible to drive or walk from Aleppo to Budapest, but not to Boston.

Continental Europeans are not blameless, either, in their longstanding willingness to accommodate Middle Eastern regimes with considerable amounts of their own citizens’ blood on their hands, most notably the regime of Saddam Hussein and his depraved sons, all of whom were removed from power largely through American force.

Today, as floods of refugees look for asylum in Europe, Obama fixates on events such as Hussein’s removal, rather the failure to secure the transition that followed, as the sources of the crises facing our European allies and the civilians who remain behind in the world’s most volatile regions. In that, he is tragically wrong, as the suffering and desperation of today’s refugees and the deaths of their lost family members attest.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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