Opinion: Europe needs to shut its borders – before it falls apart

Photo: Thijs ter Haar
The current system of accepting asylum seekers is damaging both refugees and the European Union, writes Niclas Hvalgren.
The migrant crisis enveloping the European Union is shaking the continent’s ability to function to its very core. With more and more nations in not only the east and south but also the west and north (not to mention the centre) electing populist governments or harboring large radical political minorities, the Union is reaching a breaking point. Indeed, Britain is already voting on whether to withdraw entirely. It is not unimaginable for more nations, already made eurosceptic by the economic crisis, to follow it if the migrant situation continues for another year. So the stakes are high – possibly the highest they’ve ever been since the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. If no solution to the crisis is found soon there may not be much left of the Union to save.
What to do has been hotly debated in and between many nations, and the different sides have not been able to agree on a common position. The death of 3-year-­old refugee Alan Kurdi, and the gut-­wrenching pictures of his lifeless body washed up on the Turkish shore that spread across the globe, briefly silenced the European opposition to immigration, but it has since quickly resurfaced and with renewed vigor. Currently, there appears to be no concrete solution on the table anywhere in the Europe. But doing nothing, while popular among national leaders at the moment, will inevitably lead to the breakup and end of the European Union as we know it as migrants resume their journey in the coming spring. With it would come the resurgence of autocratic, Putin­-style rule in much of eastern Europe ­ governments in Hungary and Poland are already in full swing dismantling democracy.
Before and in the early stages of the crisis the focus of Italy and the European Commission was to prevent the deaths of thousands drowning in the Mediterranean. That priority, however, was quickly forgotten as migrant routes shifted from Libya to Turkey, across the Aegean Sea and into Greece. Along with this geographical shift the sheer amount of people attempting to cross into Europe increased many times over. The thousands upon thousands of migrants crossing the Balkans prompted Hungary to ring-­fence itself with barbed wire and border patrols. It was a gross overreaction to the plight of refugees who have lost their homes to civil war and persecution, but it illuminated the growing chaos surrounding the migrant stream. Germany opened its borders, and for a brief period its hearts, as it said “Refugees Welcome” in an attempt to uphold the refugee’s right to asylum.
That sense of generosity, and pride, faded in a matter of weeks. Critical voices were first raised in conservative Bavaria and then across Germany, and the previously sky­-high approval ratings of Angela Merkel dropped sharply. For a while there were even rumors of a party rebellion that would have kicked her out of the chancellery.
Then, after having reached its limit, Sweden closed its borders to migrants, followed by Denmark and many others as a sense of panic spread. The terrorist attack in Paris and the incident on New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other German cities were most likely the last nails in the coffin for the unconditional acceptance of asylum seekers.
Political cooperation and attempting to find a common, European solution has now all butgone out the window ‐ the priority of Europe’s leaders now is to protect their national interests. For the governments of Germany and Sweden, that is to share some of the many migrants weighing down their public administrations out among the rest of Europe’s nations; for their eastern counterparts it is paramount to defend against what they perceive to be a veiled threat to their security and culture. (Other nations, such as France, the UK and Spain, are not involved in the crisis to the same degree.)
These two factions have strictly opposing interests – any deal attempting to forcefully distribute refugees, such as the European Commission plan to relocate some 160 000 migrants from Greece and Italy, will most likely be shut down in the east. In turn, the governments of Germany and Sweden find it morally despicable to even discuss blocking or denying refugees’ right to asylum. They are baffled as to how others could be so uncharitable to those in need, while their opponents believe the migrants will destroy the nations of Europe. There is little understanding between the two sides.
The main reason for the crisis was the sheer numbers of migrants moving across Europe. Xenophobic parties and governments fret that refugees will bring violence and crime with them, and point to Cologne as evidence. This is not true: most offenders identified by police hailed not from the Middle East but the Maghreb, and were therefore most likely not refugees but economic migrants. In fact, the European Commission reckons that about 60 percent of the migrants currently in Europe are migrating for economic reasons, and are not fleeing war or persecution. Had the migrant flows been 60 percent smaller, the situation would have been far easier to manage. One could argue that the current crisis is not a refugee crisis but a crisis of illegal immigration.
Processing the asylum claims of these economic migrants will take time, during which governments will have to pay for their upkeep and housing, only to reject their claim anyway. This costs enormous sums of money and prolongs waiting times for those with proper grounds for asylum. Here another issue arises: most who are rejected and meant to leave Europe, remain anyway, appealing their cases several times or simply disappear . Many who stay in this legal gray zone become desperate and turn to crime , while rumors that you can stay even if you are rejected compel even more economic migrants to make the journey.
These migrants fan the flames of xenophobia while hindering those actually fleeing war. For a common political solution to work, then, it will have to adress all of these problems. It must allow all European nations to safeguard their interests; it must allow for those with legitimate asylum claims to come to their host nation in an orderly manner; it must prevent migrants from risking their lives crossing Mediterranean; and, finally, it must prevent the large­scale illegal immigration that is overwhelming Europe.
The first part of a political fix must therefore be to close the EU:s external border in a quick and effective manner. It will prevent migrant deaths at sea, and stop those without legitimate claims from gaining the choice to disappear once in the EU. Furthermore, it will stop Europe from being torn apart as migrant flows pick up again with the rising temperature.
The second part will have to be to massively increase aid to refugee camps around Syria and in the world. As more asylum claimants have made landfall, many nations have raided their foreign aid budgets to pay for their processing, decreasing the resources available to camps – prompting more migrants to head for Europe. This lethal cycle encourages the refugees who are relatively well off to sell their last possessions to pay traffickers to smuggle them abroad, leaving the truly destitute to eke out a living in ever‐declining camp conditions.
The third part is to accept refugee claims in processing centers in these camps, and then move those with legitimate claims ‐ the real refugees ‐ into their host nations. It would spare them the grueling ordeal of hiding from authorities and walking thousands of kilometers to their destination, and stop the criminal networks that make fortunes off of people smuggling. Asylum acceptance could be done either by an EU agency, by nations themselves, or through the United Nations refugee resettlement programme. To avoid the conflict that sank the previous EU scheme to distribute refugees across Europe (namely that some countries want to accept refugees, while others harshly refuse) every country would decide for itself how many to accept. In order to appease countries such as Poland, Hungary or Slovakia, some of who have quite blatantly stated that they do not accept muslim refugees, newly accepted refugees’ benefits could be tied to the nation that first received them for a period of, say, five years. This would incline them from moving (through Schengen) away from the nation that accepted them.
Supporters of refugee’s rights claim that allowing nations to specify a number or a limit to accept, rather than unconditionally assessing every migrants case that reaches their borders, is contradictory to human rights. They may be correct. But the fact is that ever since the Declaration of Human Rights was signed refugees’ right to asylum has been curtailed. Different kinds of border protection or just plain geography have been used ‐ and are being used right now ‐ to limit or prevent refugees from seeking asylum. A national quota (decided by the country itself) would be a more honest and more democratic way of accepting refugees. Politicians could argue to their voters why to help out more refugees, and voters could make an informed decision, instead of feeling overwhelmed by what many perceive to be an uncontrollable tide of foreigners and turning to far­-right parties in response.
The most obvious criticism against this policy (ignoring legal challenges, for now) is that it would lead to a decreased amount of refugees who are resettled in European countries. This may also be true in the short run, but a well functioning system for processing and resettling refugees could be used internationally to argue for other nations to help those in need. America, a country well over half the size of the EU measured in population and with an economy far stronger, has signaled it will take a deplorable 10 000 refugees during 2016 – if hardliners in the country do not manage to stop even that. Ironic, considering it is the country that laid the groundwork for the instability that refugees are fleeing from. Many stable nations in the Middle East have accepted no refugees during the course of the entire Syrian conflict. In Asia, Latin America and across the world few nations are pulling their weight when it comes to helping those that flee war. Rich nations should, of course, take the biggest load, but it is unacceptable that so many do little or nothing to help those in need. Right now, the world is looking at the chaos in Europe and deciding that refugees bring nothing but trouble.
A well managed system such as the one described above would paint the opposite picture and may well end up helping more refugees, while avoiding the rupture of the European Union. We do have a moral and legal obligation to help refugees, but no obligation to do it as stupidly as possible. Pride must not get in the way of successful solutions. The nations that consider themselves to hold the moral high ground need to realize that the current system is helping few refugees while greatly damaging trust and solidarity in Europe.
Refugees deserve help. To give them that and avoid a diplomatic meltdown, the leaders of Europe must shut the borders of the European Union.
Niclas Hvalgren
The Uppsala Association of International Affairs is politically independent. Views expressed in articles published by us reflect the opinions of their writers and should not be interpreted as the views of the Association of Uttryck’s editorial board.