Blocked borders, hand-washing governments, muddy camps, risky sea crossings, uncertainty, and fear. As decision-makers meet in Brussels in two high-level meetings this week to address the refugee crisis, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Will they finally decide to act in concert to tackle the situation, or as with last week’s meeting, agree to little more than patching Band-Aids over a gaping wound?

A young refugee girl walks past graffiti at the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary, on September 4, 2015. Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers camped out in the train station as Hungarian authorities prevented them from getting on trains towards Austria and Germany.

2015 Daniel Etter for Human Rights Watch


Interior ministers from all 28 European Union countries meet tomorrow to hammer out an elusive agreement on the relocation of 120,000 asylum seekers from frontline countries. The European Commission and some member counties, including France and Germany, are pushing for a mandatory scheme, while Eastern European countries like Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic remain adamantly opposed.

As significant numbers of asylum seekers reach its borders, Hungary has blocked their way with water cannons, teargas, and razor-wire fencing.

A voluntary program would likely fail to relocate all 120,000 people, as happened with a much more modest scheme for relocating 40,000 from Italy and Greece. It also would do little to address the unequal distribution of responsibility for asylum seekers among EU countries, which in turn helps drive the piecemeal and counterproductive responses of individual EU governments.

The second meeting – this one an emergency meeting between EU heads of state, slated for Wednesday – could extend into the wee hours of the night (the last one, in June, ended at 3 a.m.). Addressing the mess at the EU’s borders with the Western Balkans could dominate the debate. Implementation of policies to speed up the return of economic migrants and rejected asylum seekers to their home countries will also, predictably, be on the table.

But EU leaders are also meant to discuss cooperation with Turkey and other countries hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees, as well as aid to United Nations programs providing humanitarian assistance to refugees, and efforts to end the conflict in Syria. The UN refugee agency and the World Food Programme are woefully underfunded. Increasing support for those agencies and refugees in the region is vital, but it is not a substitute for action within the EU borders, not least because EU governments cannot expect Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon to do their part if the EU is not willing to live up to its own responsibilities.

Over the past weeks, we’ve seen Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, and others trapped in train stations, detained in inhuman conditions, hit with teargas and pepper spray, and shunted from one border to another. During that same time, scores have died in the Mediterranean.

The EU should ensure asylum seekers at its borders have a fair chance at gaining protection and are treated decently in every EU member state. It should also expand safe and legal channels into the EU so people do not have to risk drowning at sea or being pushed back at an EU border. Increased humanitarian aid to regions far more affected by refugee flows is vital, as is the long-term effort to address the root causes, such as war and rights abuses.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, called the crisis a “test of our humanity and responsibility.” Let’s hope that this time around, EU decision-makers embrace this, creating policies grounded in human rights and respecting the dignity of everyone reaching its borders.