Editorial Board

How to Manage Europe's Refugee Emergency

The key is solidarity.

This, in Lebanon, or Europe. Choose.

Photographer: MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

Europe’s refugee crisis is far from contained. The flow of people fleeing the horrors of Syria continues unabated, and the countries of the European Union remain at odds over how to respond. There’s no simple answer, but the EU can do better than this.

QuickTake Europe’s Refugees

Governments are struggling to balance two conflicting commitments -- one to honor genuine requests for asylum, as they are bound by treaty and by common decency to do, and the other to limit the flood of refugees to a level their citizens will tolerate.

The key to squaring this circle is solidarity. Europe’s governments need to see the refugee emergency as a collective problem that they’ll confront as partners. At the moment, that principle isn’t guiding the discussion. Measures agreed to last year haven’t been implemented. Instead of burden-sharing, the focus has been on burden-shifting.

At least three proposals are being discussed. The first is to end the EU’s so-called Dublin rule, which requires the first EU nation in which an asylum-seeker sets foot to take the application. This hardly seems worth debating: The Dublin rule has already been repealed by force of events.  

A second proposal is for EU nations to set refugee quotas. Horst Seehofer, leader of Germany’s Christian Social Union party, has been trying to press this approach on Chancellor Angela Merkel. And Austria recently said it would set its own cap on the number of asylum applications it will accept in 2016, at 37,500 (compared with 90,000 last year).

The problem with this is easy to see: What happens to genuine refugees who are turned away? Will other countries be willing to take up the slack? More likely the opposite: The pressure will mount on other governments to accept fewer people. The spurned refugees won’t go home, so one way or another they will remain Europe’s problem. Shunted from place to place, their distress will be compounded, and Europe’s citizens will be no happier.

Denmark advocates a third idea. It wants to rewrite the 1951 Refugee Convention so it would no longer be possible for people fleeing the Syrian war to spend time in the relative safety of Turkish or Lebanese refugee camps and then claim asylum in the EU. In principle, there’s some logic to this, but again it’s impractical. Lebanon already has one refugee for every four inhabitants. Turkey is host to more Syrian refugees than the 28 nations of the EU combined. Neither country will agree to a treaty change that eases the burden on rich nations at their expense. Nor should they.

What’s the alternative? Without national quotas, and within the framework of the existing rules, Europe should act as the union it’s supposed to be.

It should spend far more on helping countries such as Lebanon provide a haven for refugees. (Governments are providing the United Nations with barely half of what’s needed.) It should create a greatly expanded resettlement program, so that refugees in countries such as Turkey can be vetted for a safe and orderly move to the EU. It should collectively secure the bloc’s outer borders, so sea crossings to Greece and Italy become less attractive to attempt. Once all that is in hand, it should regard accepting the refugees who do arrive as a joint responsibility, and strive to spread the burden equitably.

Europe is a rich continent, of 500 million people. It can accommodate more of Syria’s refugees. Indeed, in the longer term, it can benefit from having them. Leaders should be mindful of their citizens’ concerns and not deny the short-term stresses or the longer-term challenges of integration, but it’s their job to drive the larger message home. Here too, as long as they act together, they can do it.