The Refugee Crisis and Europe’s Defining Moment

The nations of Europe may be finally acting now to save Syria’s refugees. But that’s not the same as acting as Europe -- or solving the problem.


The road from Budapest to Vienna is 151 miles long. From Vienna, the highway to Passau, on the German border, is another 175 miles. These roads transport a traveler from the extremities of “new” Europe to the heart of the old continent. And this week, as last, they constitute a trail of sorrow and hope as thousands of desperate refugees seek a new life — indeed just the possibility of a life — in calmer pastures than those they’ve fled.

The plight of these Syrians is nothing new. This cruel war has gone on for four years, and Europe, by and large, has been content to watch from afar. In the end, it took a single photograph — of little Aylan Kurdi, the drowned 3-year-old boy washed up on a Turkish beach — to shock the conscience of a continent. Had it really come to this? Did we need a picture of a drowned toddler to concentrate attention on what arguably counts as the greatest humanitarian crisis Europe has faced in 50 years?

Perhaps it did, if only because the fate of little Aylan swiftly became the superlative illustration of Europe’s failure to recognize, much less confront, the scale of the disaster unfolding in Syria. Ten million people have been displaced by Syria’s blood-soaked civil war; 4 million of those people have sought some kind of sanctuary in neighboring countries. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey are struggling to deal with this massive influx of refugees.

A life in the camps that have sprung up in each of those countries is hardly a comfortable existence even if it is manifestly preferable to the horrors of Aleppo, Homs, or Hama. But for those who can — and who can afford it — Europe is the destination of choice. Europe — any part of Europe, but especially countries such as Sweden, Germany, and Britain — offers the promise of safety and opportunity. Aylan and his brother, Galip, were just two of whom, heartbreakingly, we must consider the unlucky lucky ones. Unlucky in that they never made it to Europe; lucky in that they had, through good fortune, connections, or financial resources, the chance to risk the perilous crossing from East to West.

At a stroke, however, the pictures of Aylan’s tiny body have changed the mood across the continent. The problem is no longer how to keep the refugees out of Europe but how to accommodate them. Or, at least, to ask what can usefully be done to ease their suffering.

Germany, as ever, is tasked with leading Europe’s response. Chancellor Angela Merkel has proposed a quota system to disperse refugees and asylum seekers across the European Union; German officials say they are expecting 800,000 asylum applications this year. Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, insists “no country can refuse to do its part,” arguing that the EU should accept at least 200,000 Syrian refugees. The crisis, he suggests, is a “defining moment” for the EU. If so, then the outlook is gloomy. Despite German leadership on the issue and regardless of a growing public clamor for greater action, a unified pan-European solution to the problem remains elusive.

And for good reason. The thousands fleeing Syria are only part of a larger problem. In the 12 months leading up through June of this year, European countries received nearly 850,000 asylum applications, a 62 percent increase on the number of applications in the previous 12 months. That number seems likely to grow. And Syria — grim as it is — accounted for only a minority of these applications; thousands more came from Eritrea, Libya, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere.

The scale of this great migration is such that it has rubbed away the long-held distinction between refugees and economic migrants. The former, by and large, can count on sympathy if not a home; the latter are viewed as a menace across much of Europe. Paradoxically, this great migration is, at least in part, the product of greater prosperity in much of the developing world, especially Africa. Globalization has ensured that millions across the planet are more aware of their disadvantaged status than ever before. Equally, increasing wealth in poor countries means many more citizens than before have the means to make the risk-fraught journey to wealthy Europe, even if that means paying people-traffickers for their dubious services.

In other words, even if a solution to the Syrian crisis were more easily found, Europe’s immigration problems would likely continue for years to come. That, in turn, means that the recent rise of anti-immigrant parties in Sweden, Finland, Austria, and Hungary should be considered a feature of the new system, not a bug. Fortress Europe might be an impossible construction project, but Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, speaks for many when he complains, “It’s not 150,000 [migrants arriving in Europe].… It’s not 500,000, a figure that I heard in Brussels. It’s millions, then tens of millions, because the supply of immigrants is endless.”

In Britain, a country that has been arguing with itself about immigration for years, the photographs of Aylan’s body prompted both compassion and outrage. Compassion as hundreds offered to house Syrian refugees in their own homes; outrage at the thought that the British government was not doing more to assist those who needed its assistance most.

Government ministers, however, argue that resettling refugees — or migrants — who have made it to Europe invites a form of moral hazard. Doing so would only encourage more desperate exiles to attempt the dangerous crossing to Europe (nearly 3,000 people have perished in the Mediterranean this year). The same calculation applies to the thousands of migrants encamped around Calais, France, hoping for an opportunity to smuggle themselves into Britain. Adopting a laissez-faire or permissive attitude toward such efforts would, ministers insist, reward those who trafficked in, and profited from, human misery.

Nevertheless, stung by criticisms that his government lacked sufficient compassion, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government drew up plans over the weekend to welcome as many as 20,000 Syrian refugees to Britain by 2020, a vast increase from the 216 who had previously been granted the right to a new life in the United Kingdom. However, the government insisted it would only admit vulnerable refugees — like orphans — from those who were already in the camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Those who had already made it to Europe — mostly young men — would have to go elsewhere.

Cameron also announced that his government would contribute an extra $150 million to the relief effort, most of this being spent to assist Syrians still in their native land, with the rest being distributed among Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan — countries struggling to cope with the influx of more than 4 million Syrian refugees. The British prime minister claimed this additional cash meant the United Kingdom has so far spent $1.5 billion on relief efforts. “No other European country has come close to this level of support,” Cameron said.

Managing or containing the problem at the source might seem sensible, but it remains little more than a coping mechanism for a series of interconnected problems so complex that any solution to one part of the crisis might only worsen another element of the problem. The deeper issues run so deep that no one can quite fathom them. Frankly, they would require the kind of policy solution ill-suited to an age in which political activism often seems to amount to posting selfies on social media calling on the government to do more. As in any crisis, the cry was “something must be done” — even if few people could realistically demonstrate precisely what that something should be. Cold, hard cash has its uses, but the clamor for a more personalized form of relief has proved persuasive. Something may never be enough, but it is better than nothing. In the end, that seems to amount to taking in 4,000 people a year and sending some money in reverse.

If that is true in Britain, it is just as true elsewhere on the continent. Even admitting the largest possible number of refugees would only scratch the surface of the larger, more intractable problem. Europe may need to find a solution, but no such solution seems available in Europe. This, it has become clear, is simultaneously a humanitarian crisis and a political dilemma in which inching toward a solution — of however limited a kind — for the former runs into the intractable political reality that the idea of a common European policy that is effective and durable is more honored in the breach than in reality.

Photo credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Correction, Sept. 8, 2015: European countries received nearly 850,000 asylum applications in the 12 months leading up through June of this year. An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that this number applied to January to June of this year.

Alex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola