The arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn regions of Africa and the Middle East, as well as economic migrants from Africa and Asia, is testing the European Union as no other recent crisis has. As the human toll mounts — more than 2,500 have died so far this year — so does the moral pressure on Europe to act. On Friday, after 71 people were found suffocated in a truck in Austria and 150 others drowned off the coast of Libya, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said he was “horrified and heartbroken at the latest loss of lives.”
The roots of this catastrophe lie in crises the European Union cannot solve alone: war in Syria and Iraq, chaos in Libya, destitution and brutal regimes in Africa. But the European Union’s failed asylum policies cannot escape blame for the suffering of thousands of people seeking to escape these crises. As things stand now, Europe offers few legal avenues to refugees, and in their absence, criminal human-smuggling gangs have flourished, promising passage in a rickety boat or a refrigerated truck for a price that too often includes the lives of those they transport.
The European Union’s Dublin Regulation is a big part of the problem. The regulation, with origins in the 1990s, requires refugees to apply for asylum in the first country they reach. This has unfairly burdened the two countries on the Mediterranean front lines, Italy and Greece. Germany, to its credit, effectively dropped the regulation last week and will allow Syrian refugees to apply for asylum no matter where they first entered Europe. But Germany is already scheduled to absorb 800,000 refugees this year, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has made it clear the rest of Europe must also do its share.
Germany, Britain and France have now called for an emergency meeting on Sept. 14 of European Union ministers to find solutions to the crisis. An early order of business should be to scrap the Dublin Regulation. Beyond that, the ministers should give the most serious consideration to a broader 10-point immigration reform plan proposed last week by Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Sigmar Gabriel, the vice chancellor and economics minister. Among the proposals are a common asylum code, fair distribution of refugees among member states, aid to countries strained by the crisis and enforced marine rescue operations on the Mediterranean.
Something must be done, and soon, not only for the refugees but also for the political stability of the European Union. The human tsunami and the absence of a coherent response to it has fueled Europe’s xenophobic right and caused discord among the union’s 28 member states.
Meanwhile, the blame game escalates. France has hardly been hospitable to refugees, but on Sunday, its foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, sharply criticized Hungary for the fence it is constructing along its border with Serbia to keep refugees out. Hungary initially blocked hundreds of refugees and migrants at Budapest’s Keleti railway station who want to travel to Germany — though it is now reportedly allowing some through — a move blamed for the rise in the kind of desperate efforts that appear to have led to the death of the 71 people found in the truck in Austria. More of the same is likely unless Europe can provide a humane alternative to the smugglers.