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The Spectrum of Suffering

Why Europe is unable to handle its refugee crisis.

Calais, France
Europe lacks a consistent plan for its refugee crisis. Here, military forces attempt to prevent people from entering the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais, France, July 30, 2015.

Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images

The refugees pouring into Europe are no threat to the people who live there, but they do threaten something of considerable importance—the European Idea. This is the idea that neighboring countries can coexist peacefully within political structures that transcend national boundaries. For many decades, the Europeans held out their political system as a model for the world to follow. If they could yield their national sovereignty to transnational courts and administrative bodies, why couldn’t the rest of us? The refugee crisis, coming on the heels of the Greek debt crisis, exposes new cracks in this model and teaches important lessons about the limits of international cooperation.

It is tempting to think that the Europeans are helpless victims of the tide of humanity coming from the south. Syrians, Iraqis, and others from North Africa and the Middle East are fleeing the violence and turmoil in their lives. Europe could not turn them back without violating its moral and legal commitments, but it cannot handle such vast quantities of people. The result: bodies washed up on the beach, chaos in the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary, tearful families begging for help from hostile police, huddled masses in public parks and on the streets. But the Europeans are largely at fault—for being too tough in some ways, not tough enough in other ways, and, ultimately, setting up a political system that could not handle major crises.

Huge population movements have been a feature of human existence for millennia. They have always been caused by chaos in one area—war, drought, economic collapse—and have nearly always caused chaos in the areas into which the populations migrate, where overcrowding and cultural differences can lead to political instability. Indeed, displacement of populations is one of the contributing factors to chaos in the Middle East and Africa today.

Throughout most of the rest of the world, however, the state system put an end to uncontrolled migration. Governments became powerful enough to control although not completely halt population movements. The principle of sovereignty provided the legal basis for keeping foreigners out. Control of the border—with guards, walls, or machine guns—is an essential feature of the modern nation state.

However, border controls do not always work. People will scale fences or take rickety boats to foreign shores unless governments use force to repel them, and mass violence against innocent people is morally reprehensible and politically unsustainable.

Most population movements can be handled in a (relatively) humane way. Small numbers of refugees can be absorbed into the local population. Large numbers of refugees can be placed in camps and given basic humanitarian assistance until it is safe to return home. When countries cooperate with one another, burdens can be shared. People who migrate for economic reasons, however, are forced to leave.

This understanding was embodied in the Refugee Convention of 1951. The convention made a key distinction between “refugees”—people fleeing persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, and related affiliations—and economic migrants, who enter other countries seeking better jobs. When foreigners enter a country and claim refugee status, the country must hold hearings to determine the accuracy of the claims and allow the people to stay if government officials determine that they are refugees. The convention thus recognizes that countries owe humanitarian obligations to foreigners in desperate circumstances but permits them to protect their populations from excessive migration.

However, the distinction between refugees and economic migrants has turned out to be hard to sustain. It reflects a cold-war sensibility that saw dissent from totalitarianism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere as a heroic stance, deserving of support from the West and well worth exploiting for its propaganda value. Today, it is hard to understand why victims of political persecution deserve more help than victims of natural disasters who may starve if they do not cross the border. People disagree about whether victims of civil war should be put in one category or the other. Suffering ranges across a spectrum; it is not binary. But if simply being a poor person living amid political turmoil rendered one eligible for refugee status, then Western countries would need to accept not thousands of refugees but hundreds of millions, which is impossible. So where does one draw the line?

This problem can be seen in Europe. Many migrants have landed in Greece, a peaceful and politically stable but economically distressed country, where they would not be persecuted but would be condemned to hardscrabble lives. Others entered Europe via Turkey, another stable country where they are permitted to live in refugee camps, free of war and persecution. But refugees do not want to stay in Greece or Turkey. The chaos in Hungary is occurring because the migrants in Greece seek passage to Germany, the richest country in Europe, where they can find well-paying jobs. So are they political refugees or economic migrants? A little bit of both.

Thus, from a humanitarian standpoint, the question is not political versus economic but where to draw the line along the spectrum of suffering. And because suffering is ubiquitous throughout the developing world while the rich world is not willing to let everyone in, the line-drawing will be an ugly process of shutting deserving people out. The international system has depended on natural barriers—mountains, oceans—to keep people from migrating except when they are exceptionally desperate (or wealthy enough to pay smugglers). The people who are most deserving of sympathy are not those who have made it to Europe but those who are left behind in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, where they continue to struggle for survival.

The ugliness of the system is on display when desperation forces larger numbers to migrate than countries are willing to accept. In the 1980s and 1990s, the United States handled a refugee crisis from Haiti by intercepting boats outside American territorial waters and turning them back. Thousands of refugees were warehoused in Guantanamo Bay. Australia, a rich country in a poor neighborhood, opened detention centers offshore in places like Nauru—an independent island nation—where it placed asylum seekers while their applications were evaluated. While Australia has been criticized for this policy and conditions in its detention centers leave much to be desired, this is a predictable and probably necessary response to the problem of excessive migration. Most refugees end up in vast camps in not-so-nice countries like Pakistan, Iran, Jordan, and Chad, funded by Western countries glad to keep the refugees far away.

So the system works only as long as the number of refugees can be kept to levels that the populations of host countries can tolerate. It’s easy to say that people should be more tolerant of foreigners and should welcome desperate migrants—and to complain that Europeans are selfish. One can’t help but cringe when Eastern European countries say that they will welcome Christians and not Muslims. And the migrants who have already arrived—a few hundred thousand—could be easily absorbed into the European Union’s huge population of 500 million. The problem is that if Europe welcomes all the migrants who have already arrived, then they will keep coming, with no end in sight. In 2014, 280,000 migrants applied for asylum in Europe. So far this year, another 350,000 migrants have entered the continent. As many as 4 million Syrians are refugees in Turkey and countries in North Africa, and another 16 million remain at home. No doubt a large fraction of these people are eager to follow their co-nationals to Germany, a country with a population of 80 million.

Germany has demonstrated moral leadership by offering to accept additional migrants and giving financial assistance to Greece. But this may turn out to be a serious error. People back in Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and elsewhere may now believe that they can take refuge in Germany, and so we can expect even larger numbers of people overwhelming the border countries like Greece and the transit countries like Hungary and even more people drowning in the Mediterranean as they make their way north. Indeed, the next wave of migration—from people in war-torn countries other than Syria who have learned of Germany’s generosity—has already begun. Before long, Germany itself could face an impossible logistical problem.

The only solution is to follow the example of the United States and Australia and block migration at sea; increase funding for camps inside and outside of Europe where refugees receive food, housing, and medical care but are not allowed to take jobs; and share the burdens fairly among European nations. (Countries outside Europe should help out as well.) But Europe has failed to adopt this solution. The reason goes back to its hybrid political structure—a collection of states with no functioning pan-European government. Because of the elimination of border controls between European countries, a country that allows refugees to enter its territory knows that they may end up in some other country, which will be responsible for caring for them. Because European government structures are weak, there is no way to compel the peripheral countries to strengthen their borders or fairly share the cost of compensating them for doing so. The European governments can move forward only by agreeing on a plan, but everyone is holding out for a better deal. This is the source of the current impasse and the resulting chaos.

The fumbling of the refugee crisis echoes the Greek debt crisis to a striking degree. In both cases, borders between countries were eliminated—financial borders in the Eurozone, physical borders under the Schengen Agreement—which created great benefits within Europe as capital and people could move around more easily. But in both cases, the necessary regulatory structures were not put in place—a European-wide bank regulator, a European-wide homeland security system—because of residual worries about sacrificing sovereignty to a faceless transnational bureaucracy. With no agency in place when the crisis struck, countries had to agree on ad hoc responses that contended poorly with a similar moral hazard problem: A bailout of Greece could encourage profligacy in other countries; refuge for migrants will just encourage further migration. Unable to solve their problems either by centralizing into a U.S.-style federation or dividing back into independent states, the continent has entered a permanent state of crisis.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the European migrant crisis.

Also in Slate, see the latest photographs from the European refugee crisis.