The current refugee crisis did not start in 2015, nor will it end there. Rather, the singular case does little justice to describe the situation of the people around the world. People have obviously been fleeing from a number of conflicts for years, although they have been largely ignored. The long plight of people fleeing either too much political order, as in Eritrea, or too little, as in Somalia, Congo, and the Central African Republic, are examples. Yet it is often repeated that the number of refugees is now higher than anytime since the Balkan Wars in the 1990s – or even since World War Two, with the worsening of the war in Syria and the collapse of any resemblance of a state in Afghanistan being the two main contributors to the rise in numbers. Still, the 972,500 refugees who came to Europe in 2015 make up only 1.6 % of the at least 60m people forcibly displaced worldwide; and there were less than half as many people reaching Europe last year as there were refugees staying in Turkey.
What spurred the change in the level of attention citizens and governments in the West pay to the change was the appearance of refugees in Europe, where disunited governments who could reasonably have foreseen the currently unfolding events years ago claim that they were caught unaware. In reality, all Western governments were caught unaware of was the ability and determination of displaced people to make their way across state borders once their situation had become sufficiently hopeless. What mattered to European governments was not that people were fleeing; it was the direction they were fleeing in.
The myopia became crippling when Western governments failed to fund UN agencies doing one of the few things they are really successful at: responding to humanitarian crises outside of a political context. This forced the UN to halve its rations to refugees in Kenya and cut a third of its aid to Syrian refugees and to healthcare to internally displaced Iraqis. Stripped even of food and the most rudimentary medical attention, the cross-border exodus gained pace. While nation-building or even ending conflict remains firmly out of range of our social technology, providing food, shelter and basic sanitation and healthcare is not, and the price is small: the 500,000 refugees in Kenya cost less than $10m a month to feed, yet even this paltry sum was too much for increasingly inward-facing authorities in rich countries. (The same scenario also played out in the end of 2014, when a last-minute call for donations finally staved off cuts for refugees in Kenya for another half a year.)
In a debate that seems to have lost all proportionality – and is rapidly leading to political despair in Europe and the incapacitation of the Schengen agreement spurred by the demands of nativist and right-collectivist parties – a sense of proportions seems to be more important than ever. We should us remind ourselves that the cumulative number of refugees arriving in Europe by sea since 2013 is still only 1,305,630. That is the equivalent of less than a third of a per cent of the EU population of 508 million. And even if Europeans decided to foot the entirety of the bill for the ‘record-high’ funding appeal from the UN system for humanitarian aid for 2016, it would cost them only $19.9b, or 0.1 % of their GDP. In other words, if Europeans decide to let European unity be shattered by a few million refugees, it is entirely of their own choosing.