Those of us outside Europe are watching the unbelievable images of the Keleti train station in Budapest, the corpse of a toddler washed up on a Turkish beach, the desperate Syrian families chancing their lives on the night trip to the Greek islands—and we keep being told this is a European problem.

The Syrian civil war has created more than four million refugees. The US has taken in about 1,500 of them. The US and its allies are at war with the Islamic State in Syria but don’t we have some responsibility towards the refugees fleeing the combat? It’s not just the US that keeps pretending the refugee catastrophe is a European problem. Look at countries that pride themselves on being havens for the homeless. Canada, where I come from? As few as 1,074 Syrians, as of August. Australia? No more than 2,200. Brazil? Fewer than 2,000, as of May.

The brunt of the crisis has fallen on the Turks, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Iraqis and the Lebanese. Funding appeals by the UN high commissioner for refugees have failed to meet their targets. The squalor in the refugee camps has become unendurable. Now, the refugees have decided, en masse, that if the international community won’t help them, if neither Russia nor the US is going to force the war to an end, they won’t wait any longer. They are coming our way. And we are surprised?

Blaming the Europeans is an alibi and the rest of our excuses are sickening.

Political leadership from outside Europe could reverse the paralysis and mutual recrimination inside Europe. Countries such as Hungary say they can’t resettle them all on their own. The obvious solution is for Canada, Australia, the US, Brazil and other countries to say that they are willing to send processing teams to Budapest, Athens and the other major entry points to register refugees and process them for admission.

Countries will set their own targets, but for the US and Canada, for example, a minimum of 25,000 Syrian refugees is a good place to start. Churches, mosques, community groups and families could agree to sponsor and resettle refugees. The most burdened countries—Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Italy—will accept help in a heartbeat. Once these states take a lead, other countries could be shamed into doing their part.

So, why are our leaders doing so little? Resettling refugees, they fear, will trigger an even greater exodus, and they don’t know how their teams could handle the chaos that would result. Tough, resourceful management—clear quotas for Syrian refugees (especially those with young families), simplified procedures and a commitment to airlift people out quickly —could solve these problems.

Most of all, however, leaders aren’t acting because no one back home is putting any pressure on them. Now, thanks to heart-sickening photographs, let’s hope the pressure grows. This is a truly biblical movement of refugees and it demands a global response. If governments won’t help refugees escape Syria, smugglers and human traffickers will, and the deadly toll will rise. Once Europeans know that their democratic friends are ready to take in their fair share, it will become easier for them to take theirs, and the momentum might emerge to reform the 1951 Refugee Convention, so that all those fleeing civil war, state collapse and murderous militias will get the same protection as those fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution.

What must Syrians, camped on the street outside the Budapest railway station, be thinking of all that fine rhetoric of ours about human rights and refugee protection? If we fail, once again, to show that we mean what we say, we will be creating a generation with abiding hatred in its heart.

So, if compassion won’t do it, maybe prudence and fear might. God help us if these Syrians do not forgive us our indifference.

Michael Ignatieff is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.

©2015/The New York Times

Edited excerpts. Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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