Europe's Broken Borders: How to Manage the Refugee Crisis

The refugee crisis was a catastrophe bound to happen. For years, the European Union has failed to agree on a common asylum system. The main dispute is over the principle, introduced in 2003, that a refugee can ask for asylum only in the EU member state in which he or she first arrives. That puts a particularly heavy burden on Greece, Italy, and (to a lesser extent) Spain, which are on Europe’s borders.

Migrants walk along a railway track outside the village of Horgos in Serbia toward the border it shares with Hungary, September 2, 2015.

On August 26, 2015, 71 Syrian refugees were found dead in the back of an abandoned truck on the Austrian highway. News of the deaths of another 200 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea broke at the same time. Every day, it seems, reports flood in about migrants risking their lives in unsafe boats, in packed vans and trucks, and on the open road as they try to reach safe haven in Europe.

Frontex, the agency in charge of guarding the EU border, estimates that about 340,000 migrants have tried to sneak into Europe in 2015 so far, almost three times as many as in 2014. Along with the surge in numbers, the demographics of the travelers have also changed. These days, the bulk of them are Syrians fleeing violence at home, Afghans escaping their own ongoing civil war, Roma from Kosovo looking to avoid discrimination, and Eritreans fleeing a dictatorship comparable to the one in North Korea. Whereas in 2014, the bulk of refugees came to Europe through Italy from Libya and Tunisia, now more people arrive in Greece after crossing Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Macedonia and Hungary have also seen a surge in traffic. Although the reason for this shift remains uncertain, it seems likely that reports of frequent drownings on the long journey from northern Africa to Italy, and the increasingly volatile situation in Libya, have convinced many refugees to try their luck over land.

After crossing through the border countries, refugees generally try to make it to Germany, Sweden, France, and the United Kingdom. Germany accepts a high percentage of asylum applicants, and Sweden has a liberal immigration policy rooted in a history of humanitarianism. It is not surprising, then, that Germany has seen the largest number of asylum requests by a large margin. Last year, over 200,000 people applied. In the first half of 2015, asylum applications surpassed that figure. Most experts predict that the yearly total will be between 450,000 and 800,000. Sweden, which received more than 80,000 applications last year and almost 50,000 through August of this year, is second highest on the list. Other destination countries, such as the United Kingdom, still see comparatively small numbers of refugees and so are more concerned about immigration from other European nations.

The refugee crisis was a catastrophe bound to happen. For years, the European Union has failed to agree on a common asylum system. The main dispute is over the principle, introduced in 2003, that a refugee can ask for asylum only in the EU member state in which he or she first arrives. That puts a particularly heavy burden on Greece, Italy, and (to a lesser extent) Spain, which are on Europe’s borders.

To alleviate the problem, this year the EU discussed introducing a quota system to distribute migrants more evenly. But the parties could never agree on what those quotas should be. Without a comprehensive and finalized asylum system, each country has done what it can to push the problem elsewhere—sometimes literally. For example, Greece has picked up thousands of refugees in its islands and encouraged them to move westward toward Macedonia, creating a state of emergency in that country, where 1,500 refugees arrive each day.

While upholding the basic human right to asylum, which is encoded in EU rules, countries have also done what they can to deter future asylum seekers. Most embassies across Europe now no longer deal with asylum requests. In the Greek islands, many refugees are left to fend for themselves without food or housing. In addition to building a wall, in July, Hungary introduced extended detention for any asylum seekers it decides to classify as “economic migrants.” The detention centers have been described as overcrowded and degrading. Hungary also very publicly sends migrants away to unsafe facilities in third countries. In Austria, Amnesty International recently deemed inhumane the situation in the overcrowded reception center Traiskirchen, where hundreds of asylum seekers were forced to sleep outdoors. In Germany, proposals to allow qualified asylum seekers to work to support themselves have run up against fears that such rules would make Germany even more attractive to asylum seekers. In May, France passed a new law to make it easier to expel asylum seekers. And the Netherlands is about to toughen its rules so that asylum seekers who, after a hearing, are found not to qualify as refugees will be cut off from food and shelter.

A group of migrants protect themselves from the weather with emergency blankets as they huddle on the seawall at the Saint Ludovic border crossing on the Mediterranean Sea between Vintimille, Italy and Menton, France, June 14, 2015.
Jean-Pierre Amet / Reuters

A group of migrants protect themselves from the weather with emergency blankets as they huddle on the seawall at the Saint Ludovic border crossing on the Mediterranean Sea between Vintimille, Italy and Menton, France, June 14, 2015.

Efforts at deterrence will not stop refugees from fleeing war and economic hardship. Rather, walls and jail time will force them to look for different ways of getting to Europe, and it might motivate them to try to enter at different borders. Time will tell whether Greece’s and Hungary’s policies eventually convince migrants to seek other entry points into Europe. For now, though, the Baltic States in particular seem to have been able to fend off asylum seekers through strict border controls, restrictive immigration policies, and low acceptance rates, among other things. Although most borders there are not guarded by a fence, border patrols and video surveillance increase every year.

But harsh controls are no solution. The only real answer is further European integration. In reaction to the flow of migrants, Europeans have focused on reinforcing national borders. That has left an unsafe, patchy, and deplorable mess for those fleeing violence. It has also made Europe more susceptible to the crisis; instead of focusing on comprehensive border controls, funds and attention have been squandered on reactive national plans. For example, Frontex, which should be coordinating security around Europe's whole perimeter, initially had insufficient funds in Italy. Money came only after 800 refugees died off the cost of Libya.

Europe will be able to launch a safe and efficient response to the refugee crisis only if it works as a whole. It should identify safe countries, increase humanitarian aid in the countries of origin, and focus on overall border security. The EU should also enforce a fair distribution of refugees around the continent and a universal system of law, procedures, and support pertaining to asylum seekers. The political will to build such a system might seem lacking right now. But pressure is only going to mount—and the problem is only going to get harder to solve. Besides, it would be against Europe’s very foundations to ignore such a huge humanitarian crisis in its neighborhood and turn away people in need of shelter.

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