A well rounded response to the crisis must encompass a rethinking of EU policy, economic investment in smuggling communities and fact-based debate.
(1) Establish a standard asylum procedure across Europe.
The reason this summer’s migration crisis has slowly spread from the islands of Greece to the sports halls of Germany, via Austria’s motorways and Hungary’s train stations, is because some European countries treat refugees more humanely than others. As a result, refugees are aiming for the places that will give them the most stability. Sweden offers indefinite residence to Syrians, while other nations don’t, for instance, while some countries are faster at reuniting children with parents who have gone on ahead to seek asylum. So the best way to ensure refugees don’t hop between European countries is not to build fences, which encourages more dangerous forms of smuggling, but to ensure that the asylum system in every EU state operates to the same high standards, gives refugees the same level of benefits and grants the same lenght of residency. A common policy would also ensure that refugees were distributed proportionally throughout the EU. As it is some countries, particularly Greece and Italy, share a disproportionately large burden of the crisis. But such a move would be resisted by most European countries as many politicians believe it would cost them political capital at home.
(2) Provide a safe and swift alternative to a meaningful number of refugees
When asked why they take such dangerous journeys to reach Europe, most refugees say it’s because they have no safer option. So one of the few things that would convince them to delay their sea crossing would be the realistic chance of reaching Europe through legal means. Syrians, Eritreans and Afghans form the vast bulk of those fleeing to Europe. The swift, managed resettlement of, say, 2 million people from those countries could therefore persuade many others to remain in transit countries until their applications are processed. This would not stop the boats entirely, and it will not satisfy those who think that migration is a possibility to be averted other than an inevitability to be mitigated. However, it would allow Europe to manage the crisis better by controlling the flow of refugees, and their asylum policy, and unless a significant number of refugees are resettled rather than a token 10,000. If resettlement remains a luxury then irregular migration will remain the norm.
(3) End the war in Syria
Many Syrians say they would never have left home in the first place if it hadn’t been for the war. So peace in Syria would be the surest way of curbing the number of Syrian refugees. However, it shouldn’t be regarded as a panacea. For a start the situation inside the country is so complex, and involves so many parties, that it is not a realistic short term possibility. And even if fighting was to formally stop, Syria’s post-war reckoning will not make the country a safe place for many returning citizens.
(4) Give Syrians employment rights in Turkey
Some of the Syrians arriving in the Balkans this summer haven’t come directly from Syria. Instead, they are among almost 2 million refugees who fled to Turkey at an earlier point in the war. Turkey has been more hospitable than most countries, but it is still not a place where Syrians can settle for the long term. Turkey does not grant Syrians work permits except in special circumstances, which means they lack the right to employment- a right enshrined in the 1951 refugee convention. Giving Syrians more of a long term future in Turkey, the country that houses the most Syrian refugees, might persuade some of them to stay there. Similar tactics could be persuaded in other Arab states with high numbers of Syrian refugees. There are hundreds of thousands of Syrians in Jordan and Egypt, and 1.2million in Lebanon, where one in four residents is a Syrian. In each of those three countries there are legal or de facto restrictions on where Syrians can work, live and learn. Lifting these would make a boat to Europe seem less of a necessity- as well as the reinstatement of certain cash handouts that the UN refugee agency scaled back earlier this year.
(5) Persuade Gulf countries to take in more Syrians
Most Arab countries don’t allow entry to Syrians. Some of them have reasonable excuses- Lebanon’s refugee population is already a quarter of the country’s total. But the Gulf countries- Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the Kuwait and Qatar- have less justification, not least because their support for various sides in the Syrian war is one of the reasons the conflict has lasted so long. If Europe has a moral duty to help Syrians, then the Gulf certainly does too.
(6) Provide economic alternatives in smuggling communities
Realistically, it’s hard to end people smuggling because the demand for it is so high, as are their passengers extraordinary tolerance for danger. The EU has discussed targeting Libyan smuggling vessels, and arrest smugglers when they arrive in Italy. But for logistical and legal reasons the former would be very hard to do in practice, and the latter targets only low-level pawns rather than key players. Additionally the web of smuggling networks that operates throughout north Africa and the Middle East, far from the shores of Libya and Turkey, is so complex and extensive that removing a few of its actors would achieve little. The EU has pushed to make smuggling illegal in the parts of Africa where it is rampant- such as in Niger the door to Libya from West Africa. But smuggling continues untrammelled because low paid police take substantial kick-backs from the trade, and because there are no major sources of income for locals. What this suggests is that greater economic investment in smuggling communities, which would provide local people with an alternative to the smuggling trade, might be the best long term policy. Smugglers in Zuwara, the main smuggling port in western Libya, have themselves made this argument.
(7) End the war in Libya
Syrians have formed about two thirds of the refugees crossing to Greece from Turkey this year. But they are now only a tiny proportion of this leaving Libya for Italy, even though they were also the majority along that route in 2014. Despite this, the number of people leaving Libya remains at the same record levels as last year- indicating that solving the Syrian crisis will not stop migration more generally, since there are many other nationalities on the move. While Libya remains locked in civil war, people smugglers will be able to work with impunity along its northern coasts and southern deserts- allowing desperate people fleeing war and dictatorship in countries like Eritrea and Somalia to reach the Mediterranean in record numbers. Returning a functional central government to Libya, which effectively now operates as a series of cantons, would help to block off the route of migration through Libya, if not the desperation of its protagonists.
(8) End repression and extremism in Eritrea and Afghanistan
Even if Libya was brought under control, and even if the Syrian war ended, the reasons many people flee other countries would remain. Eritrea and Afghanistan are two of the other main sources of the migration crisis, with citizens of both countries facing brutal journeys over thousands of miles to reach Europe, and many die en route. While the former is locked in a North Korea-style dictatorship and the latter faces a resurgent Taliban and an emergent IS, they are likely to keep producing refugees.
(9) Learn from precedent
After the Vietnam war, the West eventually welcomed 1.3million refugees from Indochina. If such a large scale resettlement scheme has succeeded once, without collapsing social order, it can be achieved again. There are worries about refugees posing a threat to European society. But as humanitarian response to Vietnam shows, a refugee influx in the low millions can be absorbed by a rich continent of more than 500 million, particularly if the process is managed well enough.