European politics 
The Tears of the Mediterranean

Ryan Tang explains why the EU's current policy on asylum seekers is both unethical and futile

Scarcely a day has passed by this summer without yet another headline addressing the European Union’s refugee crisis. What began as a humanitarian emergency in the Mediterranean has rapidly evolved into a political crisis afflicting the entirety of Europe as the continent struggles to cope with an ever increasing influx of desperate refugees from Syria, Libya, Eritrea and further afield. Hungary has decided to flout the European Commission and construct a fence on its southern border with Serbia at the cost of further antagonizing its neighbours. Greece and Italy are complaining ever more vociferously about the burden of housing, feeding and processing thousands of refugees. Reception centres in parts of Germany have become the targets of vandalism, arson and xenophobic demonstrations even as refugees storm train stations in Hungary and asphyxiate in overcrowded vans in desperation. Regrettably, Europe’s leaders have demonstrated tragically little vision or leadership in coping with this crisis. Prime Minister Orban of Hungary made headlines when he declared that Europe had a ‘moral duty’ to tell refugees to ‘don’t come’, but his remarks, shocking and distressing as they are, merely reflect a significant strand in public opinion across the continent.

It is tempting to declare that politics should not be allowed to stand in the way of basic human compassion and empathy. Certainly, Orban’s comments are despicable. In characterizing the current situation as mass migration, he trivialises the travails of refugees who have fled from jihadists, barrel bombs and chemical weapons. By invoking Europe’s Christian identity as a reason to keep refugees out, he demeans the faith of millions of compassionate believers across the continent who believe in assisting those less privileged than themselves. It is certainly worth noting that churches of all denominations have been at the forefront of helping arriving refugees irrespective of their religious beliefs and calling for a more proactive approach from national governments.

The fact of course remains that politics is an integral part of the equation. The refugees who are currently in Europe will not simply disappear – under international law, they must be housed and fed whilst their applications are being processed. At least 350,000 refugees have been detected at the EU’s borders this year thus far, and there are undoubtedly thousands more who managed to enter undetected. Hundreds of thousands more are following in their footsteps from various failed states and the flow shows no sign of abating. Conservative politicians across Europe have suggested that many of these asylum seekers are economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or the Balkans and there is certainly some substance to these claims, but by the far the largest single group of refugees are Syrians who have witnessed the gradual destruction of their country amidst internecine warfare. Many of the Nigeris, Malians and Nigerians who have arrived in Italy and Spain can claim to have fled from Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Magreb and other extremist groups in the region, whilst Afghan refugees include former translators for NATO’s ISAF and members of vulnerable ethnic minorities. In short, Europe is empathically facing a legitimate refugee crisis, not economically driven mass migration. Of course, it would be foolish to deny that many asylum seekers were in part motivated by the prospect of a better life, but that in itself does not qualify them for automatic deportation.

Equally however, the political will to resettle every single last one of these genuine asylum seekers is lacking. Those who are already in the European Union will certainly have to be taken in one way or another, but even the most liberal government will inevitably encounter political resistance to a policy of open-ended resettlement. David Cameron’s reluctance to take in more refugees has justifiable come under flak from a wide spectrum of society, including many Conservatives, but he has a point in that taking in more and more asylum seekers is hardly a sustainable long-term solution. The current debate regarding quotas for individual countries is tragic not only because many governments (mainly in Eastern Europe) have vehemently rejected even laughably small allocations, but also because it utterly fails to resolve the long-term question. For each refugee who is successfully resettled, another swiftly arrives to take his place, creating political capital for Europe’s populist right.

The first step must thus be to arrive at a comprehensive resettlement of all current asylum seekers in Europe. The European Commission’s latest target of resettling 160,000 refugees will be an important first step, although that in itself has already proven deeply contentious. Angela Merkel’s proposal of creating a Union-wide list of ‘at-risk countries’ to expedite the processing of applications must be adopted without further delay, and even if a full list cannot be immediately drawn up certain countries (Syria, Eritrea, Libya) are self-evidently danger zones that merit inclusion. Germany and Sweden have already been generous to a fault, but the EU’s other major players need to accept tens of thousands of refugees as quickly as possible. At the same time, credible deterrents need to be put into place to prevent resettled refugees from immediately attempting to move on. Not every refugee will find themselves in Britain, Germany or Sweden, but such is the lottery of life. The challenge then is to enforce such policies without unravelling the entire Schengen Zone. Generally speaking, refugees who are more successfully integrated into their new communities have fewer incentives to move to another country. National governments that swiftly act to provide language training, basic healthcare and education, accommodation and transition assistance can potentially help to persuade many refugees to stay in their new homes. Refugees who do decide to move on to Germany or other destinations would need to be forcibly deported back to their original place of asylum and face the deprivation of certain benefits. Such measures are deeply antithetical to large segments of the liberal left across Europe, but in the absence of such policies it would be difficult to persuade sceptical publics to countenance an influx of refugees. In any case, asylum seekers have strong incentives at present to move on to wealthier and more generous countries. That is only natural, but their desire to do so imperils the entire framework of quota based resettlement and threatens to stir up resentment in the more popular destination countries. Germany has already witnessed an upsurge of anti-refugee violence, and there is a very real danger that the public mood can shift in an intolerant and illiberal direction if the status quo continues indefinitely. Certainly, resentment at free-riding by other countries threatens to undermine the very fabric of the European Union. Asylum seekers from Syria and Libya have a legal and moral right to lead a safe and dignified existence free from persecution and brutality. They do not have the right to live in a specific part of the European Union any more than I have the right to live at One Hyde Park. Refugees who fail to acknowledge this fact run the risk of transforming themselves into economic migrants who enjoy substantially fewer rights under international law.

Ultimately though, the international community needs to arrive at a broader and more comprehensive solution to deal with this crisis. David Cameron is right to suggest that without lasting peace and stability in Syria and Libya, refugees will continuously try to enter the European Union, risking their lives in the process and leaving them open to exploitation by unscrupulous human smugglers. However, given that no one seems to be any the wiser with regards to bringing peace to the Middle East, a more realistic solution would be to strengthen cooperation with other regional powers so as to regulate and control the influx of asylum seekers. One reason for the reason crisis is that existing camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are already grossly overstretched and an increasing number of refugees have largely given up hope of returning to their shattered homes in the near future. Even if the will and capacity to house every single refugee who reach the shores of Greece exists, that alone will do nothing to reduce the dangers of the journey itself. Refugees will still be at the mercy of unscrupulous people smugglers who have thus far exhibited a shocking disregard for the sanctity of human life, and offering additional incentives for families to undertake this perilous crossing only plays into their hands. In the long run, the European Commission needs to simplify the application procedure for refugees through creating processing centres in the refugee camps themselves. With such mechanisms in place, refugees will have much weaker incentives to endanger themselves along the journey to Europe. From the perspective of sceptical European publics, a formalized application process offers a multitude of benefits. Firstly, it ensures that the number of refugees admitted per year can be controlled and adjusted by national governments. There can be no doubt that unregulated refugees at Calais, on the Greek Islands and in the Eastern Balkans have interrupted the normal flow of goods and people, creating much disruption for local inhabitants in the process. Within a legal framework, refugees can be flown to Europe on chartered flights and accommodated at designated reception centres without inconveniencing and alienating local communities. Secondly, the presence of screening mechanisms will go a long way towards alleviating legitimate security concerns and undermine one of the far right’s favourite arguments in this debate. Last but not least, a well-regulated application process offers far greater protection for the refugees themselves and upholds their basic human dignity. Never again can Europe afford to let innocent men, women and children asphyxiate in the backs of van or drown off the coast of holiday resorts.

Such a solution would do much to stabilize the wider region and save thousands of lives in the process, but it cannot succeed without much greater cooperation from the international community. It is deeply hypocritical and irresponsible for Americans to criticize the actions of Viktor Orban in Hungary whilst refusing to admit more refugees themselves. The European Union, acting as a unified bloc on the global stage, should pressure and shame other developed countries to make sizeable financial contributions towards the costs of feeding and accommodating the refugees displaced by the Syrian conflict. The UNHCR has already been forced to cut rations in refugee camps due to a lack of funding, strengthening the incentives for families to travel to Europe. Governments that refuse to contribute towards the UNHCR’s work are not only displaying a shocking degree of callousness, but they are also undermining regional security and stability. At the end of the day, the greatest burden thus far has not been borne by Greece or Italy but by Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. If we cannot put an end to the bloodshed in Syria, we should at least take active steps to assist those who have suffered the most in this tragedy. In an age of unprecedented mobility, no country can afford to stand aloof from bloodshed and chaos in today’s failed states.