It’s not really the same as what happened with Cuba and the end of the Vietnam war, [as far as the U.S. taking in lots of refugees]. The acceptance of people is not commensurate with the scale of the crisis. What is the right number? It’s hard to say. It certainly it wasn’t enough before, and it’s definitely not now.
The vast majority of refugees worldwide are hosted by neighboring countries, and those are some of the poorer countries in the world. They are really bearing the responsibility of the global crisis of forced displacement. The idea that richer countries or Western nations are the ones that are taking care of everyone, that’s just not the case at all.
Khazan: One draft of the executive order included the idea of “safe zones” within Syria, though that was later excluded. Would something like that work? If not, why not?
Cone: We’re talking about a conflict that involves dozens of armed groups, not even counting Russia, Turkey, Hezbollah, Iran, various Kurdish groups. Just the practicalities of doing something like that are daunting. And even if you were able to create a safe zone, you have to create the conditions to allow a sufficient amount of humanitarian aid to come, and there aren’t very many good precedents for that in this war. So why they would be feasible now remains to be seen. And also, frankly, people should be allowed to flee and seek sanctuary. They shouldn’t be forced to stay inside Syria. The health system is devastated, there’s very little aid, the infrastructure has been destroyed. People need to have some possibility of choice.
Khazan: What types of treatable diseases are Syrians currently dying of?
Cone: With [the flesh-eating parasite] leishmaniasis, that has to do with the living conditions, without proper shelter, without access to clean water and soap. [Cases of leishmaniasis in Syria rose from 3,000 before the war to more than 100,000 in 2014.] Polio is something, the vaccination system and public health system has collapsed. You’re going to see children born who haven’t been vaccinated against polio, measles, tetanus. Once your health system collapses, diseases can come back because you lose herd immunity. And polio, as we’ve seen in Pakistan and Nigeria, when the vaccine campaigns aren’t happening, it’s a very resilient disease that can come back very quickly. War-related issues, like trauma, dominate. Doctors have to focus on the trauma and triage, and inevitably what happens is the health system is not capable of dealing with chronic conditions. You have to make choices with limited resources.
Khazan: What about Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan? What are their medical needs?
Cone: We run a clinic, a maternal and child health clinic, in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, that predominantly serves a refugee population. We’ll be opening another hospital in the Bekaa Valley that’s focused on pediatric care and some reconstructive surgery as well. There’s nothing that tells us the conflict is going to end soon, and we’ll need to continue to support these health systems.