Europe is rightly regarded as one of the more prosperous, free, and safe regions in a world that is still largely unfree, contaminated by war, and scarred by serious poverty in areas. It seems to follow from this that Europe is well governed by global standards. So it is mysterious that the continent should be experiencing social turmoil and economic hardship on a massive scale as a result of two of its most carefully thought-out decisions. These are Europe’s common migration policy and the creation of the European single currency, the euro.
The woes of the euro have been so thoroughly canvassed here in recent months that all we need do at present is note in passing that the Greek government has announced that it will not achieve its target for privatizing state concerns this year, a move that was supposed to help finance its latest bailout (while confidently predicting that it will do so next year). Europe’s common policy on migration, however, has been covered by media more fitfully. When a boat ferrying refugees from Libya to Italy or Spain has sunk, drowning its passengers, the tragedy has rightly been an important news story. But it is only in recent weeks that media have noticed that most migrants enter Europe not by the dangerous sea route but by rail and road through Europe’s southeast borders.
After so much footage of desperate migrants clinging to sinking ships in the Mediterranean, the scenes in the railway stations of Budapest in Central Europe —where angry migrants without travel documents rioted to demand passage to Germany — have shown the full chaotic effects of Europe’s migration policy on land and sea. Some commentators seem to believe that the decision angering the migrants was taken by Viktor Orban, Hungary’s “hardline” prime minister, as he is always described, as part of some “authoritarian” crackdown. In fact Hungary is under attack for obeying the EU rule that migrants have to be registered in their first EU country of arrival and can travel on only to countries where they have a substantial hope of asylum.
On land and sea, migrants are moving relentlessly through Europe to wherever they want to go, overwhelming frontier controls, physical barriers, and police forces.
We were warned. All this and more was forecast by two pieces of prescient fiction 42 and 25 years ago: The Camp of the Saints (1973), a right-wing jeremiad by Jean Raspail on how Europe is conquered by impoverished masses in a ramshackle fleet from the Third World; and The March (1990), a left-wing British film from the BBC on how a march of famine victims from Saharan Africa brings the Third World to the very Straits of Gibraltar. Though these two works were as different as an obituary and an epic poem, they reached almost the same conclusion. In Raspail’s account, the West was defeated by its own humane inability to resist this wave of human misery and was occupied by it; in the BBC version, the march ended in a standoff, but progressives in the European Union wanted to admit the marchers and accept the global justice they represented.
Facts started imitating fiction about the same time as The March was shown — it is still available on the Internet and well worth watching — and 20 years after The Camp, also still in print, was published. Boats carrying illegal migrants from China and the Middle East started arriving in places as far afield as California and the Côte d’Azur in the early 1990s (see my own “Invasion of a Certain Kind,” which appeared in the April 30, 2001, issue of National Review). On the occasions when their passengers were arrested, they were soon released and allowed to stay. That pattern continued for almost a quarter of a century, and migrant flows into Europe by land and sea rose steadily throughout the period. But politicians and officials refused to treat it as a serious problem until the deluge was upon them.
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Indeed, both intentionally and inadvertently, they adopted policies that made migrant-smuggling easier and more profitable. Three such policies stand out, and though they now can be plainly seen to be massive errors, there is no political will to abandon or change them fundamentally.
The first policy was to abolish the internal borders of most EU countries — the so-called Schengen countries — without having first secured strong external EU borders. As a result, once a migrant arrived in one European country, he was able in practice to move to any other European country. This freedom of movement applies to all migrants — refugees, persecuted Christians, economic migrants, terrorists, and even people-smuggling gangs. One easily foreseeable result was the recent incident in which a Moroccan migrant with an arsenal of weapons boarded a train that crossed Schengen borders without inspection and was restrained from mass murder only by the bravery of other passengers, notably (and with obvious symbolism) three American tourists.
The second policy was to make it all but impossible to deport those migrants who succeed in reaching European soil. Just this week the European Court of Human Rights told the Italian government to cancel its “fast-track” deportation system on the grounds that every application for entry (even for non-refugee economic migrants) must be assessed individually as a matter of human rights. At a time when hundreds of thousands of people are overwhelming European borders, that is an administrative impossibility. It makes border control, usually regarded as an indispensable attribute of sovereignty, all but impractical. It casts doubt on a new system of accelerated deportation proposed by the EU Commission, even before that system has come into effect. Overall, the result of this and similar judicial decisions is that, once a migrant reaches Europe, his right to remain is now more protected legally than it was before.
The third policy was the creation of a European quota system under which Europe collectively agrees to take in an agreed number of refugees, currently about 35,000, who will then be distributed among the individual nations. This is unrealistic on several grounds. A quota system for migrants is incompatible with both the Schengen agreement and the EU-wide principle of free movement of labor. Migrants may be distributed to a particular country, but they cannot legally be compelled to stay there. Many more than 35,000 migrants have now actually reached the European Union — the estimate for July alone is more than 100,000, and even that seems on the low side. And individual countries have an incentive to encourage the migrants to move on elsewhere in a game of “pass the parcel,” which Spain among others has played discreetly but ruthlessly. So the current tough talk from EU officials, such as the threat to compel member states to accept higher quotas, cannot deliver what it seems to threaten. Even if Brussels were to impose it on EU member states, it couldn’t impose it on migrants without breaking the Union’s fundamental rules.
What all these rules can do, however, is increase the incentives for migrants to get into Europe by all available means and despite any obstacles. Chancellor Angela Merkel has maximized these incentives by announcing that all Syrians who want to come to Germany — their number is currently estimated at 800,000 — will be welcomed and allowed to stay. The French prime minister said something very similar. Mrs. Merkel’s offer is not quite as generous as it sounds, however, because she is also demanding that other EU states increase the numbers of migrants that they admit. (Notice that the Hungarians obeyed EU rules and kept the trains in Hungary until Austria and Germany confirmed that they would accept the migrants.)
So much for the consequences. But consequentialism is not the sole test of a policy. Does not Europe have a “duty of rescue,” both moral and legal, that compels it to admit these migrants and deal with the difficulties afterward? The short answers to that question are No and No.
The first No concerns the duty of rescue. Europeans have such a duty, under a 1951 U.N. convention, toward refugees from war and oppression. But most of the migrants heading toward Europe today are not refugees requiring rescue under that definition. One estimate is that Syrian civil-war refugees account for 38 per cent of the current migrant flows into Europe. But no one really knows.
Most are not families with women and children from war zones, moreover, but single young men from across Asia and Europe who are the very definition of economic migrants. We have no duty of rescue in such cases (other than a general moral duty to rescue them from sinking ships). And in no case does a duty of rescue mean a duty to grant people the right to live and work in particular European countries simply because they want to very much. Crowds shouting “Germany” in Budapest suggest not a desperate need for any sanctuary but an ambition for the good life that modern Germany symbolizes. So the first step to solving the crisis is to distinguish refugees deserving rescue from other migrants.
Crowds shouting “Germany” in Budapest suggest not a desperate need for any sanctuary but an ambition for the good life that modern Germany symbolizes.
The second No concerns the rescuers. It is not Europe, or the EU, or “Europeans” who have a duty of rescue under the 1951 convention but all the nations that signed it and similar documents. If the refugees originated mainly from, say, Belarus or Bulgaria, then a case could be argued that the countries of their region should take in all or most of them. But these refugees originate from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East, North and West Africa, and the Horn of Africa. Europe in general and Germany in particular are very far from all these places. Other things being equal, Middle Eastern countries, African countries, and Asian countries should be nearer the front of the line providing sanctuary. With the exception of Syria’s hard-pressed neighbors, Jordan and Lebanon, that is not so — and we all know the reasons for that reluctance.
The lesser reason is that these countries, especially the Middle Eastern states, fear to accept an influx of migrants (young men particularly) who might destabilize their regimes; the stronger reason is that the migrants don’t want to go to just anywhere, especially poor countries offering no more than sanctuary. They want to go to Germany and what they envisage as permanent prosperity. But that cannot be a decision solely for them to take. So the second step to solving this crisis is to arrange an equitable sharing of the refugee intake among all countries.
Writing at National Review this weekend, Rupert Darwall compares the current refugee crisis to that of the Southeast Asian boat people in 1975–79. He argues that, today as then, the United States should take the lead in organizing a humanitarian rescue. And he is almost certainly right to claim that without U.S. leadership in the late ’70s, the boat people would not have been rescued and settled, as they were, in America, Canada, Australia, Britain, France, and other European countries (with the great majority settling in the U.S. and other Anglosphere countries.) Without American leadership today, this crisis will almost certainly drag on, worsening all the time.
But what exactly should the U.S. do? Washington cannot offer to take the lion’s share of refugees, as President Carter did in the 1970s. The U.S. already has its own hemispheric migration crisis and little appetite for another. Also, if it were to be widely believed around the world that America had joined Germany in welcoming refugees, that would massively hike the numbers claiming refugee status.
Better precedents would be the settlement of refugees by international agreement in World Refugee Year, 1960, and the international conference established after 1956 to agree on the sharing of Hungarian refugees among nations from Austria to Australia. In line with these, the U.S. should take the lead in convening an international conference (inevitably, alas, under U.N. auspices) to determine an equitable distribution of the refugees now in European limbo or elsewhere, and to reform and modernize the global treaties relating to refugees and migrants. Its main business would be to negotiate a worldwide intergovernmental agreement setting national quotas for the admission of refugees needing sanctuary.
In order to do that, however, the conference would have to settle such matters as a clear legal distinction between refugees and other migrants, the different rights enjoyed by different categories of migrant, and the authority of nations to deport, with reasonable dispatch, migrants who have entered on false pretenses. In redrawing the ambit (and limits) of international law on refugees, the assembled states would by the same token establish the primacy of national law on most other migration matters. What is now often denied by NGOs specializing in migration (and sometimes by self-interested U.N. and other global bodies) would become unmistakably clear: that nation-states have the right to determine the numbers and of immigrants they will accept and the reasons for accepting them (e.g., family reunification versus job skills).
Once that legal clarity has been achieved, it opens the way to certain practical policies and confirms their legitimacy: for instance, limiting the right to claim asylum from within “target” countries, while establishing processing centers outside them (e.g., in North Africa and the Middle East today). These offshore centers establish whether migrants applying for entry have the right status before they set out on a long and perhaps dangerous journey. Australia has successfully pioneered this method of processing applicants offshore while “stopping the boats” that had previously brought migrants to the mainland illegally. Its success has had the important effect of refuting the defeatist but quite common argument that migrant flows are irresistible forces of nature that cannot be halted by law or policy. A still more important result is that the several thousands of migrant deaths that occurred at sea when the previous, more “compassionate” policy was in place have been reduced by this policy to zero.
Similarly, if our aim is specifically to help refugees, the best policy is not that of simply fast-tracking them into Western Europe. As economist Paul Collier points out in a recent issue of The Spectator, most genuine refugees wish to return home when the conflict that has driven them out ends (as it usually does within a decade.) He suggests that therefore policies should be directed to helping them live and work in “job havens” in nearby countries, with Western aid to compensate for any distortions such havens bring to the local economy or power structure. Such policies would help a far larger number of Syrian refugees, about 5 million, than the thousands who would be helped by an easing of European migration restrictions. And, as with Australia, they would also reflect the principle that — ideally, at least — compassion should be helpful rather than conspicuous.
But what incentives do governments have for an international conference and a new migration treaty on these lines? Several reasons suggest themselves. The first is that many existing international laws on migration really are outdated. In 1951 when the U.N. convention offering shelter to refugees with a “well-founded fear of persecution” was signed, almost no one was moving around the world. Migrants were numbered in the hundreds worldwide; today, the estimates rise to as many as 20 million. Moreover, they are a different kind of migrant.
The new migrants are in the main not poor people driven toward Europe by war and poverty but people who are just rich enough to afford buying a ticket to a better life than the one at home.
As Fraser Nelson points out in the Daily Telegraph, the new migrants are in the main not poor people driven toward Europe by war and poverty (both of which are declining factors in world politics) but people who are just rich enough to afford buying a ticket to a better life than the one at home. Royal Navy sailors who rescued migrants from a sinking ship in the Med found that many of them had credit cards and cell phones. And since incomes are rising worldwide, many more almost-wealthy “new migrants” will be making their way to the First World. The limitless pool of migrants can now afford to travel. Governments know they will have to cope with this looming and seemingly endless tsunami. In preparing to do so, however, their hands are tied.
And that is the third and most powerful reason why governments may welcome an international gabfest. In recent decades they have lost control of migration policy to supra-national institutions, U.N. agencies, pro-immigration NGOs, international courts, and even their own domestic courts. As the recent decision by the ECHR demonstrates, governments are hobbled by these institutional rivals even in such straightforward matters as protecting their borders.
SLIDESHOW: Europe’s Refugee Crisis
This loss of control creates serious complications: Courts or the EU Commission may decide under pressure from NGOs that migrants have welfare rights that mandate extra government spending. Even when these interventions are acceptable in themselves — which isn’t always the case — they complicate the budgetary calculations that are at the heart of government. Governments would like to regain responsibility in such matters. But how? An international conference to revise treaties in the light of these new realities of migration would enable them to regain some of the powers on migrant policy they have recently lost. There are always risks in convening international conferences. But the greater risk here lies in the status quo. After all, governments would be writing the new treaty. All that their institutional rivals can do at that point is to submit recommendations.
To be sure, any such conference would be influenced by the general moral and cultural zeitgeist surrounding migration issues. In the battle to shape that zeitgeist, governments on the one hand and supra-national agencies, international lawyers, and NGOs on the other are merely agents and proxies. The principals in this struggle are national electorates and the academic-media-philanthropy complex that sets the “progressive” agenda in modern democracy.Electorates by and large take a view of mass migration very similar to that laid out in The Camp of the Saints: as a threat to the culture and identity of their nations. The ac-med-phil complex looks on mass migration in much the same way as the does BBC’s The Camp: as a step toward global justice that, though inadequate, is still worthwhile and that will go some way to punish voters for not being sufficiently progressive. Thus, Europe’s migration failure is now being played out in the world’s media in a distorted narrative that depicts the migrants in Budapest as poor wretches seeking “room at the inn” when the reality is more like an invasion over borders in the guise of a civil-disobedience demo.
This is a lopsided conflict in almost all arenas. Post-national, post-democratic bodies such as the European Union and U.N. agencies are strongholds of the ac-med-phil complex and the enforcers of its opinions. Democratic controls are weak in such bodies, and they have only the haziest accountability to any actual voters. Those who make decisions at a post-national level have no responsibility for meeting their costs at the national level. Failing policies survive for much longer than they would under the criticisms of democratic politics. Signs of their failure are disguised and denied with the help of a compliant media. Right up to the brink of collapse, utopian policymakers insist that the solution to the crisis is more of the same. That explains why the European Union launched the two biggest public-policy disasters since 1945, sustained them against every rational criticism for more than a decade, and is still sustaining them today.
Democratic politics has its weaknesses. But political parties at least have to take the costs of policy and the opinions of voters into account. Democratic governments can defy neither reality nor the electorate indefinitely. Though no panacea, it is powerfully in our interest that they take migration policy back from the global-governance crowd.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large at National Review.