Pope Francis shakes hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in this picture dated Feb. 21, 2015. CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters

Compassion first

  • September 4, 2015

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has boldly urged the European Union to respond immediately and compassionately to the region’s largest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

“If Europe fails on the question of refugees,” she said, “its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed.”

Sadly, however, her plea for all EU members to accept their fair share of the flood of human misery that is fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa by way of perilous journeys by land and sea is being widely challenged. Some ask why it took so long, but Merkel is calling for mandatory refugee quotas for the EU’s 28 states, and in the process she is demonstrating valuable lessons in leadership and compassion.

“There can be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people,” Merkel said. “There is no tolerance of those who are not ready to help, where, for legal and humanitarian reasons, help is due.”

Merkel’s intervention came after a particularly grim week in which more than 200 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean and 71 more, including four Syrian children and their parents, were found dead of suffocation in the back of a transport truck abandoned in Austria. These tragedies brought the known death toll of European-bound refugees to almost 2,700 so far this year. That figure excludes unknown victims simply swallowed by the sea in doomed crossings from Africa.

Europe is enduring its largest human migration since the end of WW II. Germany alone expects 800,000 migrants this year. That compares to 626,000 asylum seekers for all of Europe in 2014 and 435,000 in 2013. Syrians, fleeing a brutal civil war, are the most common refugees reaching Europe, followed by Afghanis and war-fleeing nomads from various African nations. What they hold in common is desperation.

Merkel is right to urge Europe to respond with compassion and for nations to share proportionately in providing immediate aid and, eventually, new homes for these people who have nowhere to turn. Erecting fences and building detention centres is no solution. The German chancellor’s call for mercy should also resonate beyond Europe’s borders.

The world has almost 20 million refugees and another 38 million people who are displaced within their own borders. This human crisis calls for global action to provide safe havens, resettlement programs and massive aid for refugees trapped in dire situations in places like Turkey, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Kenya and Jordan. It also calls for intensive and co-ordinated international efforts to crush the smuggling rings that cram desperate people into sweltering cargo holds of creaky ships or into airless transport trucks.

What the German chancellor proposes is a vital step, but only the first one.

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