Acts of desperation.

Photographer: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Europe's Bold Refugee Proposal

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

The plan the European Union announced Wednesday to tackle the Mediterranean migrant crisis contains a breakthrough. EU leaders have proposed a resettlement quota system that would distribute asylum seekers according to the ability of member states to accept them. If Europe gets this  right, it could become a blueprint for a global system.

Let's forget for a moment that, according to the plan, Europe would resettle just 20,000 people in the next two years, though as many as 1 million refugees may be ready to set off for Europe from Libya. This is the first time the EU has tried to establish a quota system, and it's the principle that matters. 

Quotas are the most reasonable way to sort out the migration mess. Immigrants arrive in frontier countries such as Italy, Greece and Spain with no intention of staying: Most of them want to go to northern Europe, where they believe they'll get a warmer welcome. Yet the frontier nations are being required to rescue the migrants from the Mediterranean Sea (though now that's an EU operation, too) and then process their initial asylum applications as they wait in often squalid camps.

Setting up a mechanism that makes clear which EU nation would take in the refugees would be a welcome change. The refugees' own desires cannot always be taken into account, and they would be better off in any European country than they were at home. As for economic migrants pretending to be  refugees, they are supposed to be sent back unless they can present a legitimate claim, so their preferences matter even less.

The Financial Times reports that the quotas would be calculated on the basis of the countries' population, gross domestic product, unemployment rates and asylum cases already pending. Considering the EU's penchant for creating complexity, the formula will probably be hard for a layman to comprehend. So attempting to estimate (very) approximate resettlement quotas, I calculated each country's deviation from the EU average on each of the four parameters. I gave the following weights: 0.75 each for population and GDP (the higher they are, the better a country is able to absorb migrants), minus 0.30 for unemployment (the higher it is the less likely the refugees would be to find work) and minus 0.20 for the number of applications already pending (a measure of the strain immigration has already placed on a country's bureaucracy and political stability).

Here's how the quotas for the 20,000 refugees would be distributed under this formula:

Eurostat, World Bank, author's calculations

Of the 28 EU member states, 11 ended up with negative numbers, meaning they wouldn't participate  (in real life that would mean other countries would need to take in about 1,600 additional refugees). These are smaller, poorer nations  such as Bulgaria, Greece, Slovakia, the Baltic states. The bigger, wealthier nations would end up with the responsibility to accept more asylum seekers. Germany, with its large population, high GDP and low unemployment, would have the biggest quota -- no surprise, since it already accepts the most refugees in the EU.

The U.K. would be the second biggest recipient, but Home Secretary Theresa May has made it clear that her country will not be part of any quota system. Her argument is familiar -- the U.K. doesn't want more economic migrants -- but it misses the point: The quota system is intended for genuine refugees. People fleeing the devastation of Syria and the brutal dictatorship in Eritrea account for the two biggest groups on the boats out of Libya. They are the ones Europe is trying to help, and quite rightly, too. 

Britain's destructive stand could skew the quota system and force other countries to shoulder bigger burdens -- Sweden, for example, has long taken in disproportionate numbers of asylum seekers, compared with other European states, and it could agree to take more. My calculations show, however, that Eastern European countries, which now receive relatively few asylum applications -- Poland, with four times the population of Sweden, has only 10 percent as many asylum seekers -- will need to do their bit for the EU by accepting more refugees.

How the experiment will turn out will be important for the rest of the world.  The crisis in the Mediterranean shouldn't be the EU's problem alone. Relatively wealthy nations should consider shouldering an equal share of the burden, perhaps even by participating in the quota system. There should be a global system to handle emergencies such as the Syrian war. It would not provide help to everyone who needed it, but it would alleviate  suffering and prevent more people from dying as they seek safety.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net