BRUSSELS – Many Europeans feel like their countries are under assault, as huge numbers of migrants flow across their borders. Whether they are being exposed to refugees firsthand, or just seeing images of them splashed across newspaper pages, Europeans are well aware of the vast numbers of desperate people trying to enter European Union territory by any means possible. But this awareness has yet to translate into a unified response.
Tensions among member states seem to be rising, perhaps because the problem differs so greatly across countries. On a per capita basis, Sweden receives 15 times more asylum applications than the United Kingdom, where official policy toward refugees remains the most hostile. Germany has now become the main destination overall, receiving nearly 40% of the EU total; even on a per capita basis, this is several times more than the EU average.
Of course, there are clear rules about how responsibility for refugees is delineated: according to the so-called Dublin Regulation, the first EU member state into which a refugee crosses is responsible for that person’s asylum application. But this is clearly problematic, as it puts the entire burden of refugees on the EU’s frontier countries. Though this may not have been a huge problem in the 1990s, when EU countries received, in all, only 300,000 asylum applications annually, it cannot work in a year when the total is expected to be triple that number.
Smaller border countries like Hungary and Greece simply do not have the capacity to register and house hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers. And larger countries like Italy have an incentive to overlook the large numbers of refugees landing on their shores, knowing that, if nothing is done, those refugees will likely head elsewhere (mainly to northern Europe).
Germany, recognizing that the Dublin system is untenable, has now decided to process all asylum applications from Syrians, regardless of where they crossed into the EU. The decision was likely driven, at least partly, by how difficult it is, given the EU’s porous internal borders, to determine where a refugee first entered. A 2013 ruling by the European Court of Justice that Germany could not return an Iranian refugee to Greece (where the applicant was found “to face a real risk of being subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment”) probably heightened Germany’s sense of responsibility on this issue.
Germany is the largest EU member country in terms of population and GDP; so, to some extent, it does make sense for it to take the lead. But Germany still accounts for less than one-fifth of the EU’s population, and less than one-quarter of its economy. In other words, not even Germany can handle all of Europe’s refugees today.
A few months ago, the European Commission tried its hand at resolving this problem with a courageous proposal to distribute refugees across member states according to a simple equation that accounts for population and GDP. But the plan was rejected, with member states – particularly those with the fewest refugees – claiming that it represented an undue interference in domestic affairs.
This has put the EU in its usual quandary: everybody recognizes that there is a problem, but a solution requires unanimity, which cannot be achieved, because each country defends only its own interests. The only way forward is to leave out the countries that are most averse to accepting immigrants, at least temporarily, and create a solution involving just those that are willing to share the burden. This may not seem “fair,” but, with more refugees landing on Europe’s borders every day, EU leaders cannot afford to delay action.
But there is another dimension to the crisis that makes addressing it all the more complicated. The migrants are not all from conflict areas like Syria, and thus do not, according to international law, have a “right to asylum.” There are also plenty of economic migrants from, say, the poorer parts of the Balkans, hoping to escape poverty at home – and willing to misuse the asylum system in the process.
Lodging an application, even one without any chance of being accepted, is appealing, because until it is rejected, the applicant receives basic housing, social services (including health care), and pocket money in an amount that may well exceed wages in his or her home country. Spending a few months in northern Europe while an asylum application is processed is far more attractive than going home to a job that pays a barely livable wage, or to no job at all.
As the number of asylum-seekers increases, so does the time it takes to process their applications, making the system all the more tempting for economic migrants. And, indeed, close to half of all asylum-seekers in Germany now come from safe countries, like Serbia, Albania, or Macedonia. As Europe’s populists use such cases of “welfare tourism” to sow fear and anger among the European public, reaching an agreement to accommodate actual refugees becomes increasingly difficult.
Against this background, the EU needs to take action on two fronts. First, member countries must urgently boost their capacity to deal with asylum applications, so that they can quickly identify those who deserve protection. Second, the EU needs to improve burden sharing – ideally among all countries, but perhaps among a smaller group at first – in providing shelter for those who gain asylum. International law – and basic morality – demands nothing less