World leaders gathered at the United Nations pledged Tuesday to take in 360,000 refugees next year, President Barack Obama said, roughly doubling the previous year’s allowance in a bid to mitigate the worst refugee crisis since World War II. The United States said 52 countries taking part in a U.S.-led summit were stepping up to accelerate resettlement and boost financial support for refugees. The White House did not release a full list of participating countries or a breakdown of their pledges, making Obama’s boast of major headway impossible to confirm.
Obama, in an emotional event designed to invoke empathy for the plight of refugees, called it a “crisis of epic proportions” that tested both the international order and the world’s humanity. He drew a parallel to the Holocaust, calling the U.S. move to turn away Jews fleeing Nazi Germany a stain on America’s collective conscience.
“I believe history will judge us harshly if we do not rise to this moment,” Obama said.
The commitments announced Tuesday fell far short of what aid groups say is needed to address the crisis. Some 65 million people around the world have fled their homes because of war or persecution or to seek a better life, including about 21.3 million considered refugees by the U.N. Refugee Agency. Millions of Palestinian refugees are registered with the U.N.
The key driver of the modern crisis has been Syria’s long-running civil war, though large numbers have also fled instability in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an oblique reference to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has suggested temporarily banning Muslim immigrants, Obama said buying into the notion that Muslim immigrants pose an inherent risk would reinforce terrorists’ propaganda. He said that would send the message that countries like the U.S. were “somehow opposed to Islam.”
“It is an ugly lie that must be rejected in all our countries,” Obama said.
Last week, the White House announced that the U.S. would resettle 110,000 refugees in the coming year, a 30 percent increase over the 85,000 allowed in this year. Obama called on wealthier nations to step up, adding that “we all have to do more.”
The U.S. said countries taking part were also pledging to increase humanitarian aid by $3 billion. China said it was pledging $300 million, while the United Kingdom said it would resettle 20,000 and provide almost $2 billion in aid a roughly 10 percent bump. Argentina vowed to resettlement of Syrian refugees but said the exact figures would depend on how much global assistance was provided.
“Your compassion will really help these helpless people,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told world leaders. “If not us, who can do it?”
Private companies were stepping up, too. The White House said more than four dozen U.S. businesses had pledged $650 million, including Facebook, Twitter, MasterCard, Johnson & Johnson and yogurt maker Chobani.
Meeting with CEOs of some of the companies and actor George Clooney and his wife, Amal, before the summit, Obama welcomed the pledges as more than an “extraordinary gesture of compassion.”
“I want to emphasize that from their perspective this isn’t charity. This is part of their overall mission. It makes good business sense,” he said.