If Europe fails to marshal an effective response to the refugee crisis, the damage to Europe and international refugee protection will be irreparable.

In 1945, there were more than 11 million refugees and displaced people in Europe and the continent’s infrastructure was in ruins. When it comes to forced migration in Europe, the challenges of the past dwarf those of the present.

But no reasonable person can deny that today’s refugee crisis is a huge political challenge for the EU and its member states. Almost 800,000 asylum seekers and migrants reached Europe by sea this year, more than 200,000 in October alone.

Newly arrived families with children walk along the railway tracks from Serbia into Hungary, towards the Roszke collection point in Hungary where they will be taken in buses to temporary detention camps. September 8, 2015.

© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

With no end in sight, there are signs that Europe’s heart is hardening. Sweden, among the most generous EU states in responding to the crisis, has asked for help from other EU governments, saying it cannot accept further asylum seekers. Some in Germany’s ruling coalition are making similar arguments.

In theory, most EU governments recognize that an effective response requires collective action. But despite two more summits this week – Valletta, with African leaders, and an EU summit afterward – European governments have too often acted in their own narrow short term political interests even if it undermines the common effort, and exacerbates the crisis.

Our research has documented the human consequences of the failure of EU governments to marshal an effective response– people trapped at borders in freezing cold and mud in the Western Balkans; people shivering on beaches in Greece; people drowning in the Aegean.

The numbers are not unmanageable. But the failure to manage the situation, and the localized points of crisis, amplified by politicians’ fearmongering and media sensationalism, risks scaring European voters into demanding tough responses to deal with the chaos, even if those responses are ineffective and deepen the unfolding humanitarian disaster.  

If EU governments don’t get a firm grip on things soon, the siren calls of those who advocate an Australia-style approach will grow. That’s the seductive but dangerous idea that if only “we” could keep “them” away from our shores and process them somewhere else, then “someone else” could offer protection to those who need it and we would be off the hook.

It ignores the fact that most countries to which asylum seekers would be diverted lack the capacity to fairly process or humanely host them -- and the horrific abuses the Australian system has actually produced.

Outsourcing asylum has long been a dream for some European policy makers and the current push in that direction is already visible in the first draft of EU-Turkey Action Plan, which talked of Turkey preventing refugees from reaching Europe, and in preparations for the Valletta summit, which some EU governments hope will persuade African countries to take on greater responsibility for border control and readmission, so that fewer people arrive, and those who do will be easier to deport.

Elements of what would constitute a more effective response from EU governments are clear:

  • Better coordination of emergency assistance.
  • Assistance with asylum pre-screening for countries at the front line.
  • An effective common asylum system.
  • A permanent system to relocate asylum seekers and equitably share responsibility across EU states.
  • Safe and legal routes to reach Europe.
  • Measures to integrate refugees into society.
  • Intensified diplomatic efforts to end the conflicts and human rights abuses that drive much of the current flows.

No one should pretend this will be easy. Relocation will likely mean that some refugees will have to live in European countries that are not their first preference or where they are not welcomed. Coordination requires setting aside narrow national interests, pooling sovereignty, and working collectively. Creating a common asylum system will take the stick of legal action against recalcitrant governments as well as the carrots of aid and technical assistance. Effective diplomatic action to improve human rights means not setting aside human rights concerns for the sake of short-term migration control expediency, as Brussels seems willing to do with Ankara.

But the alternative would make a mockery of the ideal of a European Union founded on respect for human rights, would deny protection to those who need it, and risks undermining the Refugee Convention itself. Why should countries in the global south, who already host the majority of the world’s refugees, keep their borders open when the world’s richest trading bloc will not?