Poverty, oppression, persecution and war are persistent evils. Refugees fleeing these terrible afflictions are -- usually -- a persistent trickling crisis.
As long as they trickle, refugees attract, at best, fleeting attention in the world beyond those dedicated to aiding refugees and displaced persons (DPs).
In this century, the persistent refugee-DP crisis becomes "unprecedented" when major media notice increased numbers, starving mouths and en route dead.
Yes, several commentators are calling Europe's current refugee challenge "unprecedented." The claim spurs an important historical note: As WW2 ended, DPs and DP camps became common terms. The DP was an unfortunately common human condition in Europe. Wave after wave of people displaced by war rolled from Eastern through Central and into Western Europe. The millions of Eastern Europeans and Germans fleeing the Red Army set a large precedent in terms of numbers of European refugees. Despite the efforts of Communist propagandists, intelligent people knew Soviet occupation meant oppression, persecution and poverty.
Back to our century and the complex moral, political and security challenges presented by massive waves of displaced people: Once numbers, suffering and death breach the awareness threshold, the best media report on the situation; the mediocre sensationalize it. When informed, by fact and sensation, empathetic people want to help relieve the evident suffering. Do something, they say.
Eventually, a superficially less generous but fundamentally just and justified question is raised: Why are these people fleeing?
Data support the assertion that, globally, the number of displaced people and economic migrants is at an all-time high. That is a function of increased population and increased mobility. Increased knowledge plays a role. Economic migrants know they can obtain a better life elsewhere, and so they split their poverty pocket.
The "all-time high" claim sounds hyperbolic but may be plausible. Sub-Saharan Africa has millions of DPs. Some have found haven across borders. Others are internally displaced (IDPs). Estimates fluctuate, but between them, Sudan and South Sudan have around a million IDPs. Poverty, war, oppression and persecution afflict both Sudans -- an echo of this column's dreary first sentence.
Unprecedented or not, Europe's latest refugee challenge does have a name on it: Aylan Kurdi. Aylan, his mother and his 5-year-old brother drowned as they tried to sail to Greece. The gruesome, stunning photo of 3-year-old Aylan lying dead on a Turkish beach is tragic and bitterly sad. Aylan's father, Abdullah, survived, at least physically. The poor man has returned to the family's hometown of Kobane in Syria's Kurdish region.
The image of Aylan lying dead on the sand tears hearts. Well, it should. But photos of devastated Kobane should also produce an empathetic rip.
War devastated Kobane by two routes: the long overdue revolt against the hideous Assad dictatorship in Damascus, followed by the rise of the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL).
In September 2014, ISIL attacked the Syrian Kurd town. Syrian Kurds, backed by U.S. airpower, held several neighborhoods and the border crossing into Turkey. Combat all but destroyed the town, but by January 2015, Kurds declared Kobane liberated, and the U.S.-led coalition called it a defeat for ISIL.
An American Marine asked after the Battle of Hue (Vietnam, 1968): "Did we have to destroy the town in order to save it?" This led to ridicule by college intellectuals. Perhaps Kobane makes the case that, yes, sometimes it is necessary.
However, Abdullah Kurdi concluded his family had to flee.
The Assad regime has clung to power, despite using chemical weapons. Recall that the Obama administration said use of chemical weapons against civilians constituted a "red line" the Assad regime could not cross. But cross it did, without punishment. ISIL rose when the U.S. withdrew from Iraq and left a power vacuum.
Assisting refugees by providing aid and shelter is necessary, but both are second-order responses. The first-order response is confronting the violent, malevolent local regimes that spur the flight. They thrive on poverty, oppression, persecution and war. Confronting them may mean regime change.
Weeping for the refugees' plight is a superficial reaction unless you're willing to fight the evil that produced it.