The Path Beyond the Waves

Europe is swinging between two responses amid its refugee crisis: Xenophobia and a compassionate pragmatism.

Photographer: Myrto Papadopoulos/Redux

Kos and Chios are Greek islands just 125 miles apart in the Aegean Sea. In the first eight months of the year, each saw almost 31,000 refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, land on their shores in rafts and small boats after trekking through Turkey. Kos chose to treat them one way, Chios another. The difference is emblematic of the way Europe has responded to its refugee crisis.

On Kos, Mayor George Kyritsis and local authorities did little to manage the influx. Food and water have been inadequate; no facilities were established to register and house the migrants. In late summer, the police packed 2,500 refugees into a stadium for almost 24 hours, away from the eyes of tourists. Images of cops spraying fire extinguishers to herd them circulated widely on social media.

On Chios, Mayor Manolis Vournous felt he had a responsibility to act. And so he offered a municipal building as temporary sleeping quarters; he appealed to his constituents to volunteer to help; he’s repeatedly called on the national government for assistance. “It’s just that you must look after somebody who’s in a very difficult situation,” he told National Public Radio.

Europe is torn between responses like those of Kos and of Chios. The brutal receptions by Hungary and Bulgaria—and the heartbreaking photograph of a drowned Syrian boy on a Turkish beach—prompted public displays of outrage. Xenophobia, for a brief moment, was replaced by a welcome consistent with the European Union’s higher ideals. Footage of Germans cheering the arrival of refugees from Budapest was a heartening image the world needed to see. “We are all the descendants of migrants,” read a placard at a French demonstration.

Virtue and common decency are more than just their own rewards. Compassion, it turns out, is also a practical way to deal with this destabilizing situation. “Where local authorities respond with humanity in a favorable way, then the situation becomes manageable—difficult but not dramatic,” says Stathis Kyrousis, the head of mission for the Balkans with Doctors Without Borders. Putting people in camps—or building fences to deter their movement—won’t solve the problem. “Closing borders makes life more difficult for people, but it won’t stop them,” says Apostolos Veizis, a physician also with Doctors Without Borders. The migrants have fled appalling circumstances in their homelands: What else is there to lose when you have lost everything?

Until the strife in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and sub-Saharan Africa is ended, Europe will continue to draw increasing numbers of people seeking to raise their children in safety. Politicians cannot restore the old status quo. Instead, they must manage the crisis to minimize suffering, keep order, counter rhetoric that advocates hatred and violence against the refugees, and recognize the economic benefit the new arrivals may present.

Immigration policy is among the most complex and emotional issues any leader faces. But this crisis provides an opportunity to reform Europe’s inadequate process of asylum and create a common policy. There is no cohesive system in place, and local migration laws and cross-border agreements haven’t been updated for decades. Even the 1951 Refugee Convention was established to deal with asylum seekers individually, not in large numbers. According to the Dublin Convention, measures governing asylum adopted by most EU members, the country where a refugee first arrives must process that person’s asylum application. In the current crisis, that puts the responsibility for hundreds of thousands of people on the shoulders of Greece and Italy. “There’s been a huge critique of the Dublin framework with the understanding now that it’s the front-line states that end up bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis,” says Susan Akram, a clinical professor of international human-rights law at Boston University. Germany has suspended the Dublin Convention for Syrian asylum requests and not sent refugees back to Italy and Greece.

“It is true that Europe cannot house all the misery of the world,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a state of the union address on Sept. 9. “But let us be honest and put things into perspective.” Juncker presented a plan for member countries to take in a total of 120,000 asylum seekers, calling for mandatory quotas for each country and building on a proposal from last May to relocate 40,000 refugees in Europe. The latest plan would require Germany to take in a total of 41,000 refugees and France 24,000 over the next two years. The quotas are based on population, economic growth, unemployment, and the number of asylum applications already processed. Greece, Italy, and Hungary are exempt because they’ve taken in more than they can handle. Ireland, Denmark, and the U.K. opted out of the EU’s refugee policies when they were devised and aren’t required to take refugees. They can volunteer.

The proposed quotas are “a very small step in the right direction,” Akram says. Europe is shouldering a minor part of the more than 4 million Syrians displaced in recent years. Most of them are in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey, which alone has taken in almost 2 million.

Most European ministers are expected to agree to some quotas at a summit scheduled for Sept. 14. As the leader of Europe’s largest economy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be instrumental in forging such an agreement and persuading others to participate. From January to July, Germany has taken in more than 218,000 refugees. “Merkel has been the smartest about this,” says François Crépeau, a professor of public international law at McGill University and the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. At a time when the population of Germany is aging and has one of the world’s lowest birthrates, Merkel is thinking about replenishing its shrinking workforce and maintaining its economic strength. “Her actions say, ‘Openness is not a threat to German institutions, to the German population,’ ” Crépeau says. The Syrian refugees come highly qualified to work—they’re educated and can integrate more easily. Merkel is trying to lead by example, says Angeliki Dimitriadi, a migration expert with the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens. “It has to do with what she believes are Europe’s obligations and ethics,” she says. In fact, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has said Germany could take up to 500,000 refugees a year for several years.

Most migration experts agree that a longer-term solution will require the participation of Canada and the U.S., which has taken in only 1,500 Syrian refugees since 2011. To deal with the Vietnamese boat people at the end of the 1980s, “the biggest countries got together, and between them they divvied up a million boat people and resettled them. It’s reasonable and possible,” says Dawn Chatty, a professor of anthropology and former director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. Germany and others should move to create a policy to let refugees travel safely and legally, without risking their lives on dinghies. “Unless you provide solutions for mobility, migrants will provide for them on their own,” says Crépeau. In his speech, Juncker saw how strategic objectives in the Middle East are tied in. “We are fighting against the Islamic State,” he said. “Why are we not ready to accept people who run away from that conflict?”

For now, governments must allow nongovernmental organizations, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Doctors Without Borders, to keep conditions humane. In some areas, like on Kos, the NGOs have been blocked from providing relief. “We have written to the mayor and authorities of Kos about identifying sites for settling the people waiting for registration and to put camp managers, paid for by UNHCR, in place, and they did nothing,” Doctors Without Borders’ Kyrousis says.

What is occurring across Europe is undeniably a crisis, and the numbers will get worse. The UNHCR estimates that by the end of 2015, more than 400,000 migrants will have crossed into Europe via the Mediterranean, more than double than in 2014. But bad situations can be kept from getting worse, not with walls but with solidarity. Merkel and the mayor of Chios are taking the compassionate yet pragmatic route. Humanity will be better served if others develop the will to do the same.

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