The daily toll among refugees and migrants desperately trying to reach Europe — 71 suffocated in a truck in Austria and 150 drowned off Libya this week — has dramatically underscored the European Union’s scattered, halting response to increasing waves of asylum seekers.
With tens of thousands of people leaving war-torn or impoverished countries to seek asylum or a better life in Europe, criticism of the bloc’s division and dysfunction is now accelerating, as the number of deaths mounts, crossing 2,500 this year.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has said that the migration crisis is a bigger test for the European Union than even the Greek financial meltdown. She said Friday that European interior ministers meeting this weekend would be looking into “rapid changes to the asylum system,” and that European leaders could hold an emergency summit meeting “if the preliminary work is done.”
And none too soon. There is no European Union standard for asylum; no common list of countries regarded as in conflict, and thus more likely to produce refugees; and no collective centers where asylum-seekers can be met, housed, fed and screened.
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Instead, with much of Brussels still on vacation, a kind of free-for-all has set in, with some countries welcoming and others not, some taking legal responsibility for refugees and others flouting international law.
“While Europe is squabbling, people are dying,” said Alexander Betts, a professor and director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University. “For the first time in its history, the EU is facing a massive influx of refugees from outside the region, and the EU asylum and immigration framework is poorly adapted for it.”
Front-line states like Greece, Italy and now Austria and Hungary are “overwhelmed and increasingly unwilling to take more responsibility,” Betts said. “Some European states are failing to keep to international law, and there needs to be a more equitable sharing of responsibility.”
In contradiction to the rules of the Dublin Regulation, formerly known as the Dublin Convention, some countries are simply allowing migrants to freely pass through their territory to richer European states without even trying to ascertain whether they are refugees entitled to asylum or economic migrants, who can be deported home.
Under the convention, the countries where migrants first enter are supposed to screen them to decide who is a legitimate asylum-seeker or refugee, but those countries are overwhelmed.
Some countries, like Sweden and Germany, are being generous with their acceptance of refugees, but warn that they cannot be this generous forever. Other countries, like Britain, are strictly applying regulations to dissuade migrants and asylum seekers, while opposing a European Commission proposal in June for mandatory quotas for settlement, to help share the burden.
Other countries, like Slovakia and Poland, have said they want only Christian refugees.
The question of immigration is a visceral issue in a way the euro is not, dividing European governments from their electorates, member states from one another and the European Union from the values on which it was founded, said François Heisbourg, an analyst with the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
More than 100,000 people arrived in the bloc in July alone, but European leaders “have agreed no coherent response,” he said in a commentary in The Financial Times.
The divisions among member states “are growing unsustainable,” Heisbourg said, with Germany taking about 40 percent of new asylum seekers, while France is taking only 8 percent and Britain, 4 percent.
One of the European Union’s fundamental principles is freedom of travel, especially within the borderless “Schengen area,” which includes much of Continental Europe.
But that achievement is in danger now, the Austrian foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, said in an interview Friday, demanding an urgent meeting of heads of state and government.
Schengen is also expected to be a subject of the interior ministers’ meeting this weekend after the attempted attack on a Thalys train headed to Paris.
On the Greek crisis, “we had one meeting after another at the highest level,” Kurz said. “Here, weeks, months go by — and nothing!
”We need a European response,” he added, sounding a common plaint. “Europe must wake up at long last and recognize that this is a serious problem.”
The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Thursday that “we must reform the Dublin Convention immediately, and find a way of creating binding and objective refugee quotas that take into account the ability of all member states to bear them.”
Costanza Hermanin, a senior analyst in migration and equality for the Open Society Foundations, said tragedies like the discovery of dead migrants in a truck in Austria sometimes produce change, but “there has been a big political reluctance to deal with the problem.”
The Dublin agreement was negotiated along with Schengen, Hermanin said, to balance freedom of movement for citizens with protections against migrants. “But after 25 years it doesn’t work anymore,” she said.
Still, she said, the situation is evolving rapidly now. “Six to eight months ago it would have been completely unthinkable that states would call for a complete revision of EU asylum policy, as the Germans are doing,” she said.
The numbers are large — the United Nations reported that about 310,000 refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe this year, about 40 percent more than in all of 2014.
Around 2,500 people have died trying to reach Europe this year, said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, not including those feared to have died when boats capsized off Libya this week.
But both Hermanin and Betts of Oxford University said that sharing even 310,000 people among the 28 countries of the European Union “should not be unmanageable,” and that the numbers pale when compared with the 3.5 million Syrian refugees that Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon alone are hosting.
“Europe needs a comprehensive global refugee policy,” Betts said, which should include more help to those neighboring countries to conflict that bear the brunt of the problem, so that refugees are better protected closer to home, making it more likely that they can return.
A more generous and law-abiding European response would encourage countries like Jordan and Lebanon not to close their own borders, he said. Hermanin said tougher refugee policies now in those countries are prompting some refugees to leave and head for Europe.
Babar Baloch, the U.N. refugee agency spokesman for Central Europe, said “Europe’s asylum mechanisms are dysfunctional” without proper reception facilities in most countries.
“They need to bring in a system in which wherever these people arrive they’re helped on the spot,” Baloch said. And given “the lack of legal avenues” for refugees to come to Europe, there is instead a growing network of criminal people smugglers along dangerous routes.
In a larger way, the migrant crisis is also a failure of geopolitics and the European Union’s own “neighborhood policy,” designed to stabilize the countries of North Africa and the Balkans with economic aid and advice. The point of the policy is not simply altruistic, but to encourage the people who live there to stay there.
The overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi, which European nations assisted in, has produced a chaotic Libya. The result has been in essence a failed state very close to Europe, even as the Continent has been reluctant to deal with consequences it helped create.
Those effects have included large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers, both Libyan and foreign, who now use the territory as a launching pad, and a major criminal economy built on people smuggling.
Similarly, the West’s inability to stanch the long civil war in Syria is generating its own blowback, creating a security nightmare that has sent nearly half the country’s population fleeing for security.
That has also complicated arguments in Europe, because fear of migrants has been coupled with likely exaggerated fears that radical Islamic jihadists will mix with the migrant flow and bring terrorism into a borderless Europe.
Together with the long and unfinished euro crisis, these concerns are feeding right-wing and populist parties in Europe and undermining the credibility of the European Union, not just in Britain but in crucial member countries like France and Italy.