Europe Doesn’t Owe Migrants Fairness

The EU may be on the brink of outsourcing its refugee problem to Turkey. But the continent shouldn’t feel guilty about making hard choices.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
People queue for a warm meal in the port of Piraeus near Athens where thousands of stranded refugees and migrants have found a temporary shelter on March 15, 2016.
The European Union said it had pushed back plans to overhaul the bloc's asylum system until next month after it has sealed a crucial migration crisis deal with Turkey. / AFP / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI        (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
People queue for a warm meal in the port of Piraeus near Athens where thousands of stranded refugees and migrants have found a temporary shelter on March 15, 2016. The European Union said it had pushed back plans to overhaul the bloc's asylum system until next month after it has sealed a crucial migration crisis deal with Turkey. / AFP / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Hakar Hoshyar and Dvan Diary, boyhood friends from Suleymaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan, left their hometown together on Dec. 28 to find a better life in Europe. By foot, car, and boat, they made their way to Germany, where Dvan has a cousin. But by this time Germany was no longer welcoming refugees with open arms. They thought about trying Sweden, where Hakar’s brother lives, but Sweden, too, had stopped receiving refugees. So they set out again, finally fetching up in late January where the continent’s land ends, on the French side of the English Channel. Hakar and Dvan caught up with me on the dusty path that bisects La Linière, a new refugee camp just west of Dunkirk that a group of NGOs had set up just a few days before.

La Linière is a much nicer place than the swampy woods of the informal camp of Basroch, from which Hakar, Dvan and hundreds of others had been moved when the new camp opened, or certainly than the sprawling shantytown known as The Jungle, in a factory district at the edge of Calais. The 1,200 or so temporary residents of La Linière live in knocked-together wooden huts, four men to a space of about 8-by-6 feet. (Hakar and Dvan’s address is 147.) They receive medical care from Médecins Sans Frontières and will soon get regular meals, or so I was told. The two young men, lightly bearded, terribly polite and very thin, are hoping to be granted refugee status in England, or otherwise Canada. The likelihood of this happening is virtually nil. And that is probably true as well for most of the residents of La Linière.

If 2015 was The Year of the Refugee, 2016 is likely to be The Year of the Impasse. Thirty-five thousand asylees are backed up in Greece, unable to proceed farther, with tens of thousands more killing time in hastily improvised camps across Europe. Chancellor Angela Merkel, once seen as Europe’s moral lodestar, now looks thoroughly isolated and has paid a punishing price for her generosity. This week the far-right Alternative for Germany party made major gains in three state elections. Merkel is hoping that, in a meeting to be held Thursday and Friday, her fellow EU leaders will ratify a deal she reached with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to return to Turkey migrants who have reached Greece, the doorway to Europe, and thus persuade potential new migrants not to attempt the voyage in the first place. In return, Turkey would send Syrians — but only Syrians — onward to Europe, though it’s far from clear that many European countries would accept the new asylees.

France, normally Germany’s chief partner, has played virtually no role in resolving the refugee crisis. Channeling the mood of a people traumatized by the November terrorist attacks that left 130 dead, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said flatly, “Europe can’t take any more refugees,” and has rather smugly reminded Merkel of the political costs of her open-door policy. Coverage of the French response to the refugee crisis has focused on the shoddy welcome the country has given desperate refuge-seekers and the dismal condition of the informal camps.

The French love ideological battles, and in the French camps a highly satisfying form of political theater has been staged in which activists from across Europe have exposed the refugees’ wounds to demonstrate the brutal indifference of the continent’s states. The day that I was in The Jungle, French gendarmes behind riot shields protected bulldozers that were leveling the south end of the camp, while enterprising refugees extended the north end. The group Calais Migrant Solidarity keeps a running tab of official cruelties; its motto is, “Resisting the border regime since 2009.”

Yet France-as-refugee-deadbeat is a simple-minded story. In the aftermath of the attacks French President Francois Hollande reaffirmed his pledge to take 30,000 refugees. That’s not very many for a country of 66 million. (And only a few hundred have actually cleared the process and gained refugee status.) But British Prime Minister David Cameron has offered to take only 20,000. France belongs in the middle tier of countries below the generous ones — Germany and Sweden — and above the abhorrent ones, like Hungary and Denmark. It need hardly be added that France is in a different league from the United States, which up till now has taken in fewer than 1,000 Syrian refugees, and whose Republican candidates for president have vied to prove to voters the depth of their antipathy to Muslim migrants.

The moral posturing over French policy obscures a series of difficult truths.

First, no one at La Linière is from Syria. Many, of course, have nevertheless been touched by warfare. I met refugees who had left Iraq to fight the Islamic State in the Kurdish border town of Kobani, and others who said their homes had been destroyed by fighting in Iraqi Kurdistan. The common denominator among them, however, was not flight from killing but despair over a dead-end life. When I said to Hakar that I hadn’t heard about any fighting in Suleymaniya, on Iraqi Kurdistan’s eastern border, he said, “No, we escaped from the government.” He didn’t mean that they were political prisoners, but rather that an ineffectual government had brought the economy to a standstill. Hakar had gotten a degree from Northern Cyprus University, returned home, and found nothing to do and no prospects of a job. Dvan had worked as an accountant for a Yazidi-run distillery, but his relatives had told him that it was a sin to make money from alcohol and forced him to quit.

I didn’t have the heart to tell the obvious truth to these two young men: From the point of view of international law, they were migrants, not refugees.

Second, the refugees of La Linière and The Jungle had chosen to stay out of France’s refugee system. Last fall, as the refugees rolled across Europe, France assembled a network of “centers of welcome and orientation” in order to process those who wished to seek asylum. Many of the centers are in remote parts of the country, and are said to lack translators and social workers versed in the refugee system. An official with MSF told me that some refugees have returned from them to the camps, warning their brethren not to make the same mistake. Nevertheless, the French have not been trying to force the refugees out of the country but rather to persuade them to leave the informal camps to enter the system.

But nobody wants to go. The Iraqi Kurds at La Linière hope to melt into England’s sizable Kurdish population. They told me that because they would be allowed to live in England — but not in France — without a passport, they could find work in the informal economy. I met Iraqis and Iranians with family members in England, but no one who knew anyone in France. One man who spoke neither French nor English assured me that the French language was too hard to learn. Of the several dozen people I spoke to, only one, Ahmed Mohammadi, a 19-year-old from Logar Province in Afghanistan, had agreed to enter the French system.

I could see why everyone wanted to go to England, but I couldn’t see why they should be allowed to choose. Hakar, Dvan and others were reasoning the way migrants do, looking for the best opportunity. But they were seeking refugee status. International law stipulates that they had a right to asylum if they had a well-founded fear of persecution, but they did not have the right to choose the place of asylum.

If Europe is to survive both as a coherent institution and as an embodiment of the liberal values of the Enlightenment, it will do so only by resisting the universalism of the left as much as the nativism of the right. Hakar and Dvan are deserving young men who would surely work hard and become model citizens of whatever nation took them in. And I do not believe that a European community of 500 million is incapable of integrating several million more refugees, even in an era of slow growth. Politically, however, it’s impossible. Right-wing parties are on the rise in every country (though not only because of the refugee issue). The only way to fulfill Europe’s moral obligations without destroying Europe’s liberal foundations is to limit refugee status to those who truly qualify for it. Does that mean that Hakar and Dvan must be deported to Turkey, under the terms of the deal Merkel worked out with Erdogan? I find it hard to believe that the EU will organize mass involuntary deportations, but it’s hard to envision any of the available alternatives.

Those who do qualify for refugee status will not be able to choose their destination. That moment has largely come to an end, since those states that were taking in refugees who arrived on their borders have largely called a halt. The governments of Germany and Sweden have been endangered by their willingness to make far more generous offers to potential refugees than other European states. In all likelihood, refugee status will be doled out henceforth to those who register for it in Turkey or other neighboring states, rather than to those who make their way inside or just outside their country of choice.

The people I talked to at La Linière and in The Jungle understand that they’ve come along too late in the process. They were dead set on going to the United Kingdom, but they knew very well that England didn’t want them. They were grasping at straws. “What about Canada?” someone asked me. “Will they take us?” I explained that so far Canada, like England, had accepted only refugees from the camps bordering Syria, not from those already in Europe. The one English speaker translated it for all the men standing nearby, who nodded solemnly. I wondered if, months from now, someone would say, “What about Canada?” and the answer would come back, “The American journalist said they wouldn’t take us.” It’s very hard to know what to say at a moment like this.

There is no getting around the fundamental unfairness of barring the door to latecomers. No Iraqi Kurd, or Afghan, or Sudanese should have to hear, after walking thousands of miles and exposing himself to unspeakable dangers, that wealthy, peaceful Europe cannot take him. Yet those who think Europe must say yes to all of them jeopardize Europe’s future as much as those who think it must say no to all of them.

Photo credit: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.