Contrary to Stalin’s famous epigram, the deaths of more than 900 migrants fleeing to Europe in a boat that capsized is far more a tragedy than a statistic. But the 900 deaths do not exhaust the migrants’ tragedy, because it is also, however regrettably, a matter of statistics. If the 900 were the forerunners of more hundreds or even thousands of migrants, Europe and the world could make reasonable provision for receiving and accommodating them. It is because they would be the forerunners of millions and even hundreds of millions if they were rescued and given sanctuary that Europe and the West must prevent their entry.
Writing in the London Spectator, Rod Liddle puts the point with painful clarity and only a little exaggeration:
There are two ways in which we can act to prevent future boatloads of migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean, and only two ways. Let them all in, or stop them trying to come. Letting them all in would certainly save more lives in the short term . . . [but] million upon million upon million of people would come and by teatime on day one the countries of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and most of the Sahel would be virtually deserted, just the occasional black flag left waving in the desert breeze.
Vast upheavals of every kind would occur: Ever-higher taxes would be placed on European citizens, social expenditures would rise to service the new millions of poor, crime would rise, racial tensions intensify, budgets fail, currencies fluctuate, extremist parties flourish, democratic elections become an ethnic spoils competition, great historic nations descend into low-intensity civil war. And when millions more kept coming, the target states would reimpose barriers, and thousands more would die on the high seas.
The result would be the same if European countries, jointly or singly, tried to square the circle by admitting an agreed quota of illegal migrants but refusing entry to anyone above the limit. Any poor Libyan or Mauritanian, then as now, would see a porous border as almost a guarantee of getting into Utopia eventually. Some would perish in the attempt. Almost no one (except perhaps the human traffickers) would benefit.
The only practicable solution to the problem of mass illegal migration is to make it unmistakably clear that no illegal immigrant will be admitted under any circumstances and that those who make it halfway will be returned to the countries from which they embarked. Anything short of that absolute prohibition is an incentive to wretchedly poor people to risk setting sail in old tubs. Such firmness sounds harsh. But a seeming compassion that encourages people to take such risks is far harsher.
That does not mean that we — and the “we” in this instance refers principally to our European friends and allies — should let people who take such risks drown. In fact it is unthinkable that we should do so. But when we rescue them, we should return them to their country of embarkation. We should also intercept the ships carrying them on the high seas and do the same.
Nor does such a firm policy imply that European and other “target” countries must adopt a highly restrictionist approach to legal immigration or refuse entry to genuine refugees. On the contrary. Different countries will adopt different immigration regimes to reflect their different economic needs and social values. Australia under its present government has succeeded in “stopping the boats” of illegal migrants while operating an otherwise liberal policy and accepting high numbers of legal migrants.
Also, there is every reason for relatively stable countries, especially those in the EU, to agree on both an overall intake of political refugees and on specific numbers for each country. That was exactly what happened on earlier occasions, such as the post-1956 settlement of Hungarian refugees, with great success. The challenge is greater now because the potential number of refugees is greater. But it can be met, even if recipient countries will sometimes insist on safeguards such as that the refugees return home when the reason for their flight no longer applies. Otherwise “refugees” will become merely a synonym for “economic migrants.”
Will the European Union, now gathered in conclave to resolve the current crisis, take action along these lines? Spain and Italy, understandably enough, want the rest of Europe to help finance both the policing of Europe’s maritime borders and the metastasizing migrant-reception camps that, as they see it, are almost accidentally situated in their own countries. The Germans among others might help with such costs and agree to a migrant-resettlement program, provided that it were accompanied by a guarantee that the migrants could not wander at will through Europe. And that runs up against one of the main reasons for the growing crisis: the EU’s prized concept of the Schengen Agreement that abolishes (most) intra-European borders. For Schengen means that once a migrant makes it to any one European country, the whole of Europe is open to him. He can go where he wishes — and many migrants see Italy and France as merely gateways to Germany, Belgium, Holland, and points north. Under such rules, migrant-resettlement programs aren’t worth the digital-recording devices on which they’re stored.
So Europe needs to take two tough decisions — and then think about solving the migration crisis long-term. First, it must establish a joint program for returning migrants to their country of origin outside Europe. Second, it must deep-six Schengen in order to control the movements of migrants within Europe. Once it’s done those things, it can think about how to change the Third World kleptocracies that generate the flows of desperate migrants. That kind of thinking might involve some dangerously forbidden thoughts of a semi-imperialist nature. But unless the EU decides to scale down Schengen, even if “temporarily,” it will be telling us that it has decided not to do any thinking at all.