ISTANBUL — The last year shattered any belief that the European Union was immune to the global refugee crisis. The desperation of people fleeing conflicts and violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and repression in Eritrea proved greater than the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean, particularly as people, aided by social media, discovered smuggling networks exploiting the proximity of Turkey’s coast to the Greek islands.
The chaotic mass movement of people that followed left some 4,000 dead at sea, including at least 250 in January. Meanwhile, the successful arrival of a million people fueled fears that Europe’s borders had become indefensible.
In fact, one million asylum-seekers, representing 0.2 percent of the EU’s overall population, would be manageable if the EU implemented its common asylum policy and distributed responsibility for processing asylum claims fairly among its members. The burden obviously grows when most asylum seekers concentrate in one or two countries. But even if all settled in Germany, that would still represent only 1.25 percent of its population, less than the 3 percent of the population that Syrian refugees comprise in Turkey and the 25 percent in Lebanon, neither of which has Germany’s capacity to receive and integrate refugees.
However, the disorderly nature of the flow has itself spurred anxiety. The threat of terrorism has so far proven much greater from disaffected second-generation Europeans of immigrant background than the first-generation refugees who are overwhelmingly grateful to have found a safe refuge. But the Paris attacks prompted concern that the Islamic State (or ISIS) might profit from the chaos to slip in its own operatives. Citing crimes against women in Cologne and elsewhere, populist politicians in Europe also sought to stoke nightmares of endless arrivals radically changing Europe’s economic, religious and cultural nature.
It is time for the EU to recognize that the mismanaged, chaotic nature of the recent refugee flow is as much — if not more — of a threat than the number of refugees itself.
The answer lies in creating a safe and legal route for refugees to find their way to Europe. If refugees were given the option of having their claims for asylum heard in countries of first refuge such as Turkey and Lebanon, many would exercise that option rather than risk their lives — and the lives of their families — on rickety boats at sea. Their willingness to pursue that option would require their confidence that those with valid asylum claims would be moved to a place of refuge within a reasonable period, which in turn would depend on EU member states finally agreeing on genuine responsibility for sharing and creating adequate capacity to process and resettle large numbers of people.
Generous resettlement and humanitarian admission programs would put the EU in a better position to ask other nations to assume a more proportionate share of the burden, rather than the modest (or non-existent) numbers currently being accepted by such countries as the United States, Brazil, Russia, and the Gulf states. These other states would have less ground to insist that the refugees are Europe’s problem alone before the asylum seekers actually arrive in Europe.
A screening process would also provide better assurance that the refugees ultimately accepted for Europe are not would-be terrorists. ISIS might still try to infiltrate attackers into Europe, but a reduced flow of people arriving chaotically at sea would make that more difficult.
By filtering out economic migrants, refugee screening would help to demonstrate that the flow of people to Europe will not be endless. Economic migrants would still try to reach Europe, as they always have, and Europe will need some of them, but irregular migration would be harder without a flood of refugees to hide among.
Moreover, while the number of genuine refugees fleeing war and repression is substantial, many of them hope ultimately to return home. They could be convinced by more generous humanitarian assistance to stay in countries of first refuge, so long as they were assured of the right to work and send their children to school. Such voluntary enticements are far preferable to coercively blocking people’s right to flee.
Finally, a more orderly process for asylum-seekers will help to undercut Europe’s demagogues. Politics are often more about perception than reality, so even though Europe can handle the refugee flow to date, the chaos has provided powerful fuel to the fear-mongers.
Establishing safe and legal routes for asylum-seekers to reach EU can thus be a win-win for all. Many asylum-seekers could find safety without first risking their lives. And the EU could reassert more control over its borders without sacrificing its values.