Legal, ethical response needed from US, Europe on Mideast refugee crisis, Stanford expert says

Stanford law Professor James Cavallaro said Europe should follow established international law on Middle East refugees and create new approaches that respond to the crisis in a humanitarian way.

Alexandre Rotenberg/Shutterstock Boy holding a 'help' sign surrounded by many other refugees.

Refugees at the Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, Hungary, on Sept. 5. Stanford Professor James Cavallaro calls for a coordinated effort between the U.S. and Europe to deal with the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the war-torn Middle East.

The United States should join Europe in providing safe havens for the Middle East refugees, a Stanford expert says.

James Cavallaro, a Stanford professor of law, says that a globally coordinated humanitarian response is required to deal with the hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in Europe from the war-torn Middle East. He is the director of the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and head of the Stanford Human Rights Center. Cavallaro, who wrote a recent blog post on the issue, recently spoke to the Stanford News Service about the refugee crisis:


How would you suggest that European countries handle the influx of migrants?

European governments can act aggressively to provide a coordinated response to ensure that every person entering Europe is provided with the guarantees that international law requires and recommends: non-return; emergency relief, as needed; cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and an individualized determination of whether the person qualifies for refugee status. First and foremost, European states are bound by Article 33 (1) of the 1951 Convention, which requires that "No Contracting State shall expel or return ('refouler') a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."

That is a minimum required by international law. Beyond that, there should be structural changes that allow Europe to respond legally and ethically to future crises‪. Reinforcing maritime fleets to respond to drownings; closing borders, as several states have recently done; or prosecuting migrants, as Hungary has threatened, however, are not adequate responses to the crisis. A coordinated, humanitarian strategy is what is needed.


Can the United States do anything?

The United States can do an enormous amount of good – or not – to respond to this crisis. For context, it should be noted there is the view that the United States is responsible for the destabilization of Iraq and Syria. From this assessment, a clear moral and legal responsibility to provide for those fleeing the chaos would be due. Whatever you may think about that assertion, there is, no doubt, a great deal more that the United States could do in terms of providing for the many refugees of the crisis. Recently, the U.S. Secretary of State pledged to increase the number of refugees (from the entire world) it takes in from 70,000 to 100,000 a year.

While of enormous consequence to the 30,000 additional refugees, these numbers are relatively small when compared with the burden other states shoulder. Sources place the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey at 1.9 million, in Lebanon at 1.1 million and in Jordan at 630,000. In addition to receiving more refugees, there is much more that can be done by the United States and other powerful nations to enable people to prosper in their home states.


Why is the crisis just hitting Europe now?

This is due to a series of factors coming together in a highly visible part of the world: Europe. For one, there is the permanent global crisis, caused by wars, conflict, severe economic deprivation and other disruptions. Last year, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) placed the number of those forcibly displaced worldwide at an unprecedented 59.5 million – up from 51.2 million people in 2013. Flows of migrants and refugees have undoubtedly increased regionally because of the war in Syria, the rise of ISIL and the resulting unrest in the region.

The Mediterranean has long been a route through which migrants and refugees have attempted to enter Europe in search of stability, safety and opportunities. Their journey, however, has been far from safe. The International Organization for Migration reports that in 2015, 2,748 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean (of a total of 3,776 deaths of migrants worldwide).

In addition to the desirability of Europe, another important "push" factor has been the intensification of the crisis in Syria and Iraq. The civil war in Syria has been going on for several years now, and the latest war in Iraq began with the U.S. invasion in 2003. But the rise of the Islamic State, which can be traced to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, among other factors, is relatively recent. Extreme abuses by the Assad regime, combined with the increase in strength of the Islamic State and its control of large swaths of territory, have led hundreds of thousands to flee Syria. For years, those refugees, and others from Iraq, have gone to neighboring countries. But increasingly, more are fleeing through Turkey and into the European Union.

What's the difference between a refugee and a migrant?

Often, those who favor restrictive immigration policies will refer to those fleeing situations of war and violence as "migrants," while those who favor more humane responses will term those seeking resettlement "refugees." "Migrant" is a broader, more generic term that may refer to any person who transits from one area to another, generally (though not always) across borders. In international law, a migrant worker, for instance, is a person who has left his or her home state.

A refugee, by contrast, is a person who flees danger and seeks protection. The relevant standard, from the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, establishes that a refugee is someone who is outside of her or his country of origin and unable to return because of "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."

Another important term is "IDP," which stands for internally displaced person. This is someone who flees a situation of danger or instability but remains within her or his own country. Like refugee, IDP is a legal term, with legal consequences that flow from the classification. Generally, the main consequence is that states are barred from forcibly returning individuals to situations of great risk of harm.

James Cavallaro, Stanford Law School: (650) 724-9157,

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,