This past week, many Latter-day Saints worshipping in sacrament meeting heard a letter from the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that expressed concern for “the plight of the millions of people around the world who have fled their homes seeking relief from civil conflict and other hardships.” The letter also urged members to contribute to the Church Humanitarian Fund, as well as to “participate in local refugee relief projects, where practical.” The letter is reflective of a severe refugee crisis around the world.
The numbers of refugees in the world is staggering. According to the United Nations, over 218,000 fled to Europe from the Middle East last month alone. And nearly 750,000 have arrived there since the beginning of the year. That is just Europe. Worldwide, nearly 14 million people have been displaced in the past couple of years.
Those numbers may seem like mere statistics until they are viewed as who they are — men, women and children who have endured guns and bombs in their homelands, a journey across dangerous waters in sometimes un-seaworthy boats, and now face months or years in refugee camps before they can be assimilated into a new land with strangers who not only do not share their culture or speak their language, but often do not want them there.
Why is this happening? War. The war in Syria has been ongoing since 2011, the one in Iraq for 12 and a half years, and Afghanistan for 14 years. Many children in these nations have experienced a childhood with no peace.
The First Presidency’s letter should be a wake-up call to Latter-day Saints, as well as others. Problems that exist in far-flung areas of the world do impact each of us, even in Utah. Our lives are inter-related with theirs.
Unfortunately, in terms of this refugee crisis, many Americans would like to act like ostriches and put their heads in the sand. The nation is divided on what the U.S. should do to help solve the problem. According to a Pew Research Center survey last month, 50 percent of Americans said they felt the U.S. was doing all it should, or should even do less, to assist in the Syrian refugee crisis. And while 51 percent agreed the U.S. should increase the number of refugees it takes in from those fleeing the Middle East, 45 percent disagreed.
The United States cannot look the other way when problems exist around the world. That intervention should be primarily diplomatic and economic. Only rarely should it be military. And even when it is military, the effort should not be unilateral.
Nevertheless, the U.S. plays a leadership role it cannot avoid. When the U.S. declines to assist, the vacuum is not left unfilled. Other nations, seeking to displace the United States in world power, step in. Russia is acting to aid the Assad regime (under the guise of fighting ISIS) with direct military action. Russia is seeking to establish its dominance in a wide sphere surrounding its borders. (It already has invaded Crimea and Georgia and sent its planes and submarines into other nations' territorial skies and waters.) The U.S. cannot allow a dictatorial regime to become the dominant player in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and north Asia.
The irony is that it is likely that this current refugee crisis could have been avoided. The United States and the European Union could have played a larger role in the Syrian civil war to stop the fighting and overthrow Assad. Greater support should have been given the rebels long ago to tip the balance of power in their direction. Eliminating chemical weapons stockpiles was a positive step. But more should have been done, and it should have been done sooner, to end the conflict in Syria.
The U.S. should take in more refugees fleeing their homelands. And citizens should assist in providing assistance to those refugees wherever they end up. Then, the next time we face conflicts that could result in the upheaval of so many lives, we should be willing to intervene more effectively and forcefully to prevent it before it occurs.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.