Europe’s migrant crisis, the continent’s greatest humanitarian disaster since the aftermath of World War II, continues to worsen. The summer began with mass drownings in the Mediterranean and bickering between the European Union and the governments of its member states over who should foot the bill for search and rescue patrols of Europe’s southern coasts. The summer is ending with a series of appalling images that have galvanized public opinion, especially in the northern European states, and forced both national and supranational authorities to act.
On the Greek holiday island of Kos, migrants rioted when the police tried to corral them in a sports stadium. At Calais, migrants stormed a security fence and were repelled from the Channel Tunnel by tear gas. At Neusiedl in Austria, police discovered the bodies of 71 people, asphyxiated in the back of an abandoned truck. In Budapest, thousands of migrants, most of them Syrian, jammed the streets and tunnels around the Keleti train station. When the Hungarian government refused to let them travel onward, some fought their way onto trains, and a small army of desperate, exhausted, and hungry people set off on foot for the Austrian border.
On September 2, as Europeans returned to work after their August vacations, the media displayed the corpse of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach after drowning along with his mother and 5-year-old brother in an illegal crossing from the Turkish resort of Bodrum to Kos. Meanwhile, the Greek island of Lesbos (population 85,000) registered 14,000 migrants on September 8 alone. Coast guards and riot police fought with crowds of migrants who tried to storm a ferry. The government in Athens admitted that Lesbos was “on the verge of an explosion.”
The European public responded to this saga of suffering and desperation with two outbreaks of sentiment. The picture of Alan Kurdi’s tiny body was tweeted with a collective wringing of hands; this action speaks of prurience and vanity. At the same time, crowds of Germans gathered at train stations to greet asylum seekers with clothing, food, and money. This was a decent, humane response to an indecent, inhumane situation.
The same can be said of the official response, though it might be argued that government by sentiment is not always in the national interest. On September 9, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, announced that the EU will take in a total of 160,000 Syrian refugees. The EU was driven to these gestures by German chancellor Angela Merkel. She was driven by public opinion, and that was driven by the media. For the media, August is the slow season and the silly season. The migrants, who happened to be thronging the Mediterranean beaches where politicians and journalists take their vacations, dominated the news.
The crisis, though, will not be solved by media outrage, popular sentiment, tinned goods, or even emulation of the pop star and antipoverty campaigner Bob Geldof, who has offered to house four Syrian families in his various properties. The Syrian civil war has forced more than 4 million Syrians from their homes. Roughly half are in camps in Turkey, where they can claim temporary protected status but cannot claim refugee status. This limbo ensures that, like the parents of Alan Kurdi, displaced Syrians will look beyond Turkey’s borders, to the overland route to Western Europe through Greece and the Balkans. The EU’s response is like sticking a band-aid over a hemorrhage.
Worse, the granting of special status to Syrian refugees is tantamount to giving an incentive to the human traffickers who bring them to Europe. The message will be understood in the ports of Libya and the border towns of Turkey: If the flow of migrants reaches sufficient mass, European governments will turn from the traffickers’ enemies to their ally, and fast-track the lucky unfortunates along the otherwise difficult path to a new life in the EU. The smoother the reception in Europe, the higher the price of the ticket to get there, and the greater the profits of the criminals who run the smuggling networks. And the greater the number of immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, the greater the nationalist backlash. Juncker has said that Brussels will allocate the 160,000 Syrians among the EU states. Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary and leader of the ultra-nationalist Fidesz party, refuses to accept non-Christian immigrants.