When it comes to war, Americans are heroically indifferent to cost. Our ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan cost at least $4 trillion, but the price tags were barely considered beforehand—or after. When dangers abroad demand military action, money is no object.
Not that we are willing to squander funds indiscriminately to avert potential threats. When asked about specific areas of federal spending, there is one—and only one—in which most Americans are willing to cut. That is foreign aid. Just because we are willing to buy bombs to help Syrians or Iraqis does not mean we are willing to buy them food or medicine.
All this matters because of the refugee crisis that has engulfed Europe. In recent months, a flood of migrants have left Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan in hope of reaching wealthier countries. The president of the European Council predicts that "the greatest tide of refugees and migrants is yet to come."
The European Union, amid bitter infighting, has agreed to grant asylum to 120,000 foreigners—far fewer than the 450,000 who have asked for it. The Obama administration plans to increase U.S. admissions by 30,000 a year.
Not everyone is happy about these influxes. Croatia closed several border crossings. Hungary used tear gas and put up razor-wire fences. "The public mood is fiercely against admitting migrants," Cristian Ghinea of the Romanian Center for European Policies told The New York Times, referring to Romania.
The mood on this side of the Atlantic is no more hospitable. Donald Trump's campaign manager said that "we should take in zero." Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., chairman of the immigration subcommittee, said the refugees should be resettled in the Middle East. A HuffPost/YouGov poll found that only 39 percent of Americans think the U.S. should grant asylum to more Syrians.
But if we want to stem the tide of refugees, the obvious remedy is to make sure the displaced get adequate help where they are. Two questions raised by the sudden surge of migration are: Why are so many of them heading for Europe, and why now?
The answers are simple: because they lost a lot of the assistance they had been getting in places like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Many have waited for months or years in camps. But lately, that option has lost its charm.
The number of people in the world displaced by conflict has quadrupled in the past five years, to the highest number ever. That means "a dramatic increase in need, from shelter to water and sanitation, food, medical assistance, education," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told The Guardian. But his agency's income will be 10 percent less this year than last year.
Insufficient funds are an urgent problem. "The current global humanitarian funding budget for all countries stands at $19.52 billion, but only $7.15 billion of that has been raised by international donors," reports The Guardian. "The Syria regional refugee response plan is only funded to 35 percent of the $1.3 billion needed."
Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan have seen the aid they get for housing, food and education sharply reduced. Food vouchers for those in Lebanon have been halved—to $13.50 per person per month. The World Food Program says 229,000 refugees in Jordan who were getting help now get nothing.
If you're a refugee with hungry children sitting in a grim desert tent city, you can put a smile on your face and hope donor governments will come up with the money to keep you from starving or dying of disease. Or you can try to make your way to somewhere better before your money runs out or your body fails. More and more of these unfortunates are choosing the latter.
For those of us lucky enough to live elsewhere, the sensible policy should be obvious. Most refugees would be willing to stay where they are, and helping them do so would be less expensive and less risky than resettling them. The U.S. has agreed to boost its funding by $419 million, but that may not be enough.
Whether you are a generous humanitarian or an angry xenophobe, you should favor greater outlays for refugees abroad. To skimp on foreign aid now is like stopping inoculations during an epidemic: the model of a false economy.
We spend a lot of money killing foreigners who are enemies. It might be cheaper to help those who are not.
© Copyright 2015 by Creators Syndicate Inc.