United Nations seeks homes for another 300,000 refugees

The UN has asked countries in the West to commit to resettling the refugees within three years.

Darko Vojinovic/AP
A migrant boy runs in the makeshift refugee camp at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece, on Tuesday. The UN has asked countries in the West to commit to taking in almost half a million refugees.

Serving as a volunteer in Greece and helping welcome thousands of refugees into Europe daily was not glamorous work, says Jeremy Dodd, an Oregon native and military veteran who served in Afghanistan. As part of a sometimes chaotic, unofficial American volunteer force he alternately provided Farsi interpretation at a clinic or shoveled gravel.

"Everybody, no matter where they were from, did what needed to be done, even if it was taking out the trash or searching through a bag of 500 socks," Mr. Dodd tells The Christian Science Monitor. 

Dodd says his fellow volunteers demonstrated consistent flexibility, from an American professor who spent weeks washing dishes, to a Canadian camp leader who did the "unsexy" work of moving boxes. 

The United Nations asked nations to employ that flexibility at home, using a Wednesday meeting to request pledges for resettling 300,000 more refugees in three years, Stephanie Nebehay reported for Reuters. 

The number is only one-tenth of the refugee population currently living in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, but only the United States, Italy, and Sweden have presented plans so far, Reuters reported. Nations recognize the need but say filling it will require a difficult, large-scale shift. 

"Sweden has continued to provide a safe haven for people fleeing the war and persecution in Syria, as well as other parts of the world," Swedish justice and migration minister Morgan Johansson said, according to Reuters. "Last year over 163,000 people, 51,000 of those from Syria, applied for asylum in our country – the highest number per capita in all of Europe."

For its part, the US government has increased the number of interviewers at Middle East refugee processing centers so the promised 10,000 can enter the United States by September, said US Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom. 

"Success at this high-level meeting today will drive momentum in the months ahead," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the meeting.

Another high-sensitivity area is Europe, where strong commitments to accept record numbers of refugees in the fall of 2015 have softened in response to terrorist attacks, a spate of sexual harassment against German women on New Year's Eve, and the rise of anti-migrant parties in several countries. The European Union, with Germany in the lead, committed to accepting high numbers of refugees last year, but leaders will have to strike a delicate political balance if they do so again. 

Canada offers a possible model, as the new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to accept 25,000 refugees in 2015. Representatives from Canada admitted that logistics have slowed the process somewhat, but the country still expects between 35,000 and 50,000 Syrian refugees to arrive in 2016 using both government programs and private sponsorships, Ashifa Kassam reported for the Guardian. 

“We’re not pretending that this will solve the whole problem, but at least we’re giving a good place to live for 25,000 and hopefully more," John McCallum, Canada's minister on immigration, refugees and citizenship, said in January, according to the Guardian.

Some backlash has resulted, particularly as the government has balanced the provision of housing and services for needy Canadians with newly arrived Syrians. Canada has also had advantages Europe lacks, including sending 500 representatives directly to Jordan and Lebanon to vet prospective immigrants before they reach Canada. Canadians pride themselves on their immigrant background and were shocked by the death of Alan Kurdi, a toddler who drowned in a smuggling accident after his family gave up on reaching Canada, Howard LaFranchi reported for The Christian Science Monitor:

In Canada’s case, the bighearted welcome reflects a number of both intrinsic and practical factors: Canadians generally pride themselves on an openness to the world and a desire to share their national good fortune with the world’s less fortunate. On a practical level, Canada has for decades welcomed refugees under a three-tiered national system of public, private-sector, and individual responses.

Dodd says his experience watching volunteers from the United States, Canada, and Europe put their lives on hold to help persuaded him that solutions can be found. 

"It gives me some faith in humanity that we have more people than we can handle coming to help these people, paying their own way, paying their own lodging, taking their own vacation time to come and help," Dodd says. 

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