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The US should take the lead in solving the world’s refugee crisis. It has done it before

The last freighter loaded with panicked refugees flees from Da Nang harbor two days before the city's fall, March 28, 1975, front deck is crowded with the vehicles. This is the last boat to leave from the city's docks, a short-lived, U.S.-financed sea-lift picked refugees and deserted soldiers up off barges offshore in harbor. (AP Photo)
AP Photo
Refugees of an earlier era.
  • Matthew Nimetz
By Matthew Nimetz

US under secretary of State, 1977-80

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Thousands of refugees fleeing their war-torn homeland, sailing off in flimsy overcrowded boats, bodies of children washing up on shore, victimization by predators, denials of entry by those fearful of admitting alien people. Our newspapers were full of these stories.

I am not thinking of the daily reports from the Middle East and Mediterranean, but rather of the hundreds of thousands of boat people escaping by sea from Vietnam in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon in 1975. How we dealt with that humanitarian crisis provides some structure for thinking about the urgent need to deal with the Syrians and other migrants pouring into Europe.

In the late ’70s, when the North Vietnamese solidified control over what was then an independent South Vietnam, dislocation, hard economic times, and political persecution led hundreds of thousands to flee, most by sea. When the full scope of the human tragedy was recognized, the United States took the lead in dealing with it. President Jimmy Carter, often thought of as indecisive and weak, was in fact a much more decisive president than he is given credit for. He and his secretary of state Cyrus Vance mobilized our allies and supported the convening of an international conference on the Vietnamese refugee situation under United Nations auspices. The president ordered the Seventh Fleet, then operating in the Pacific, to organize a major effort to rescue boats in distress. Regional countries, historically unfriendly to the Vietnamese and very poor in their own right, were arm-twisted to allow us to set up regional transit camps to process refugees for temporary periods. Other countries around the world were asked to commit to take a certain number of refugees for resettlement, and there was a reasonably good response. Funds were collected from countries which could/would not take refugees for resettlement (like Japan).

The US took in over 800,000 refugees in total, maybe more.

The US response was immediate, generous and frankly quite astonishing given how we are reacting to the present crisis—the US took in over 800,000 refugees in total, maybe more, and during some months we absorbed around 30,000. The result after 40 years is that our Vietnamese-American citizens are well-integrated and active citizens, and as a group outstanding contributors to the American economy and the American culture. The idea, back in the late ’70s of a US governor refusing to admit a refugee family into his state would have been unthinkable.

What can we learn from that experience?

Most important, leadership is required to deal with these events and, like it or not, the US cannot easily escape from its traditional role as the lead participant when a world-class crisis erupts. We can’t distance ourselves from the present crisis because, although we are not on the front line geographically, we are in fact impacted directly and importantly.

Second, resources must be forthcoming to deal with the situation, and these will be substantial over a long period if we are to be realistic. Again, mobilization of world resources for a crisis always requires significant American participation.

Third, a global strategic approach to the problem is an urgent requirement, and only some creative and tough thinking will avert a disaster of historic dimensions.

Our country without doubt shares in responsibility for the crisis.

In the case of the Vietnamese boat people there is no question that the US government felt a sense of responsibility for what had happened in South Vietnam and we did not turn our backs on a major humanitarian tragedy. Our military was fully engaged at sea. Rescue, transitional support, and vetting were well organized; resettlement on a global basis was the order of the day.

Sadly, the US has tried to stay as far away from the current refugee problem as we can. This reaction is understandable, but totally unrealistic, and also unfair. Our country without doubt shares in responsibility for the crisis, having played a role in triggering the unraveling of the Middle East through the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq and our failure to take early action in the Syrian debacle (how much responsibility we bear will be a subject of debate by historians for decades and not worth arguing about at this stage).

The European Union as an entity has also demonstrated a lack of coherence and an inability to act as an effective sovereign power in this crisis, similar to its failure to deal promptly and effectively with the Greek financial meltdown. There has been weak and ineffective work by navies and coast guards in the region. The EU and the US have not coordinated effectively with regional countries like Turkey and Jordan that have in fact taken in millions of refugees without as much fuss as some of our politicians have made about taking in a few dozen. International relief agencies on the front line of the humanitarian effort are inadequately supported. There is a tendency to put responsibility on the so-called countries of first entry, mainly Greece and Italy, which is totally unfair and unrealistic.

The most profound difference between the present migrant crisis and the Vietnamese boat-people precedent is that the latter had a limited life while the Middle East unraveling is generating an almost-infinite number of potential migrants ready to move north. In this context the Islamic State and other terrorist organization are having a field day promoting discord, extending the reach of their terrorist cells, and sewing anger, resentment, and ethnic/religious confrontation. The tragedy of Paris is only the latest and most dramatic evidence of this reality.

Most important right now is to recognize we have a short-term crisis and a long-term strategic challenge.

Once processed and vetted, refugees should be distributed among a broad array of cooperating countries, mostly European and regional states.

In dealing with the short-term humanitarian crisis that is the continuing migrant flow, international agencies together with the EU, US, and regional countries (primarily Turkey and Jordan) should process those from war-torn regions and others who meet well-established criteria for asylum. They should provide these people—I prefer to designate them as “refugees” because their permanent status should not be predetermined—temporary shelter in regional processing centers, returning others to their homelands, however harsh that may sound. Once processed and vetted, refugees should be distributed among a broad array of cooperating countries, mostly European and regional states, but with the understanding that a final decision as to status will be made in due course.

While working to stem the refugee flow,  American, Russian, and EU leaders at the same time need to face up to the strategic challenge, that is to deal on an urgent basis with the political and military crisis affecting the Middle East. Most important is the total collapse of Syria, Yemen, and Libya. There are also unresolved political cleavages in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the need to stabilize other mainly Islamic states where structures are weak and where political instability, if not resolved, may suddenly result in a new wave of migration to and across the Mediterranean. There seems now to be a consensus that the Islamic State must be fought and vanquished. But we know from Afghanistan that battlefield victory is not the end of the story. If we accept the fact that there is a direct relationship between the collapse of the Middle East order and both massive migration of people and the nurturing and export of Jihadist terrorism, then we have to recognize how difficult the task is ahead.

Dealing with this complex set of issues will take time and resources; compromises with Russia and others with whom we mostly don’t agree; use of military force by the US and our allies more than just occasionally (and yes, boots on the ground, from time to time.) Importantly, our leaders will have the unpleasant duty of choosing the lesser of two evils on many occasions as there are no easy answers here. For example, wIth so much at stake it seems incredible that so much seems to turn on the future role of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in a new Syrian order—US and Russian leaders need to work this disagreement out in private.

There is no escaping our responsibility: the US has to play an active leadership role in this strategic process, and we need to understand that the stabilization of the Middle East is a necessary requisite not only to peace in that region but to dealing with the migrant issue, assuring the stability of Europe and achieving success in the battle against determined and smart jihadist enemies.

We are in for several decades of hard work.

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