A refugee crisis that Europe cannot escape
Your essential guide to what matters in Europe today. Delivered every weekday.
The last thing the EU wanted to deal with was a tide of refugees. The eurozone crisis, the struggle with Russia over Ukraine and the UK’s decision to hold its referendum on membership were challenges enough. Now comes a crisis that is as fraught as it is hard to manage. Yet the EU cannot choose what it must deal with. It must deal with what is before it.
The desperate human beings landing on European shores pose daunting moral, political and practical difficulties. But a way has to be found to manage them without sacrificing the values on which modern Europe was built.
In deciding what to do, the EU must draw a distinction between refugees and immigrants. Countries have legal and moral obligations to refugees. They do not have such obligations to other immigrants. Compassion for the desperate has to be distinct from a cooler assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of immigration. It may be helpful to argue that refugees could provide economic benefits to the recipient country. In many cases, no doubt, resourceful people who so much want to enter will do just that. But that is not the reason why they should be accepted.
Yet persuading people to accept this distinction will be hard because the numbers have become large. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Europe will receive up to 1m asylum applications this year — an unprecedented number. Of these, between 350,000 and 450,000 are likely to be granted refugee status. Compared with previous crises, people from countries neighbouring the EU are less represented (the war in the former Yugoslavia being the cause of the spike in asylum seekers in the early 1990s), while those from further away are more so. The origin of the flows is diverse: in the first half of 2015, Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and Eritreans accounted for 39 per cent of all asylum claims.
The number of accepted asylum seekers this year would still amount to only 0.1 per cent of the EU’s population, hardly an unmanageable figure. The numbers reaching the EU are also small relative to the total number of refugees. The number of forcibly displaced people in the world at the end of last year was 59.5m. Moreover, nearly two-thirds of the displaced remain within the borders of their own countries, while 86 per cent of all refugees are in developing countries. Turkey hosts at least 1.7m, Lebanon 1.3m and Jordan 1m. Given the size and prosperity of the EU, the task it faces is relatively trivial,
This is not to belittle the challenges. Given the instability in the Middle East and Africa, the numbers of bona fide refugees are likely to rise. Moreover, the EU seems to have lost control over its borders. Thus, many more refugees, as well as many with a less justified claim to that status, are surely still to arrive.
So how should Europeans and their allies, particularly the US, respond?
In the short run, incomers need to be processed. Germany has stated that it expects to receive 800,000 asylum-seekers, or 1 per cent of the population, this year — the largest number ever recorded in a member of the OECD. But its decision to do so is causing huge stresses inside the EU. Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission president, has proposed that refugees be shared out among the member states. EU ministers did vote on Tuesday to relocate 120,00 people across the continent over the next two years. But members differ greatly in their true willingness to take refugees. In any case, once inside the border-free Schengen area, people cannot be tied down. They will move wherever they expect the best lives. The EU needs a common policy, at least for the Schengen area. The UK and US also need to take more refugees.
The same sort of solidarity is needed for another task: helping refugees integrate successfully. This is going to be difficult and costly. They will need assistance with learning the language and housing. Richer countries will have to assist the less well off ones. A revitalised European economy would also help.
Solidarity is also needed to help overstretched countries on the frontiers, notably Greece and Italy. It is hard to see how the border-free Europe of today will be maintained without a well-resourced border protection and immigration service. But this requires common policies: a daunting political task.
Another need is to provide the vulnerable states on the front lines of the refugee crisis with far more assistance. This applies, in particular, to those bordering Syria. A particular moral burden rests on countries whose irresponsibility helped destabilise much of the Middle East — the US and the UK foremost among them. But France shares responsibility for intervening in Libya and then walking away. At the least, these countries need to help those living with the results of their actions.
Now come two really hard tasks. The first is to bring a measure of stability to destabilised countries. For Europeans, the most important are Syria, Iraq and Libya. And, similarly, Europeans need at least to try to halt the people-smuggling at source. This will require a combination of diplomacy and coercion. If Europeans are unable to muster much of this, they will remain at the mercy of events. The US must also play a more effective role as a producer of order, not disorder, than it has at least since 2001.
Europeans just want to be left alone. But the EU lives in a world of chaos. It needs to find a way to cope, other than by becoming a fortress that lets the desperate perish on its defences. It needs a comprehensive and effective strategy. Yes, this time pigs do have to fly.
Get alerts on when a new story is published