World must respond to this vast refugee catastrophe

Refugees sleep in a park in Belgrade, Serbia, Aug. 30. Migrants, including many women with babies and small children, await an opportunity to travel north and enter the European Union.
Refugees sleep in a park in Belgrade, Serbia, Aug. 30. Migrants, including many women with babies and small children, await an opportunity to travel north and enter the European Union. The Associated Press

The refugee horror show in Europe and the Mediterranean has been getting ever more chilling.

Capsized boats and drowned bodies are almost background noise now. The last couple weeks have brought worse.

Most shocking was the discovery of an astonishing 71 decomposing corpses packed inside a middling-sized truck abandoned by human traffickers off an Austrian road. All of them — including four children — were asylum seekers, and they appear to have died of asphyxiation. It smacked of the Holocaust.

Then, on Wednesday, came the heart-rending photographs of a dead 3-year-old Syrian boy lying in the surf on a Turkish beach. Details — his napping posture, his Velcro sneakers — brought the multi-continental catastrophe home as nothing else has. The images prompted a surge of pity that helped push European leaders toward a more coordinated refugee policy.

The world hasn’t seen so many people in flight since the aftermath of World War II, when millions of displaced people stumbled across Europe to find lost homes, seek vanished loved ones, escape murderous militias, and simply survive.

The basics of today’s crisis are not much different. Large regions of the Middle East and Africa are racked with warfare, famine and desperate poverty. Millions have been driven from their homes and have sought safety in neighboring countries; many are confined to camps, some squalid and miserable. Hundreds of thousands have been seeking to reach safe, wealthy Western Europe.

Syria is the epicenter of this human disaster. Over the last four years, a small uprising against its dictator, Bashar al-Assad, has expanded and degenerated into a hellish conflict among Assad’s forces, the Islamic State and an al-Qaida affiliates. War crimes — massacres, poison gas, torture, rape and sexual slavery — are rampant.

For people in the prosperous West, it seemed easy in 2011 to sit back, wring hands and do basically nothing about the slowly escalating conflict. Just another round of blood-letting in the Middle East. Russia, Iran and various Muslim extremists weren’t shy about intervening, though. If only we could have a do-over.

Germany has covered itself in glory responding to the crisis. It has lifted its limits on refugees and expects to process asylum requests from 800,000 people this year — virtually anyone who can reach its borders. Chancellor Angela Merkel — helped by the photos of the drowned toddler — has been shaming other wealthy European nations into accepting quotas of displaced people.

Inviting entire populations to resettle in Europe or America is hardly an option, though. What’s needed is something like a latter-day Marshall Plan coordinated by the European Union, the United States and Canada, and any other nation willing to join in.

More support should be given to Turkey, Lebanon and other front-line nations burdened with large concentrations of refugees. Western nations should process petitions for asylum at the camps to reduce the number of dangerous treks. The human traffickers should be shut down. Libya has to be stabilized; its anarchy has made it too inviting as a launching point for the deadly boats of refugee smugglers.

And the savagery in Syria must somehow be ended. This will take Western intervention. Syria’s agony is the whole world’s problem now, and there’s no reason to assume it can’t get worse.