It should not have taken the heartbreaking photo of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy, to galvanize global concern over Europe’s migration crisis. After all, the stories of refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants have been well-chronicled, often with other heart-wrenching images.
But now that the world’s conscience has been shocked, European leaders should hasten efforts to mitigate the migrants’ deplorable plight. And most important, world leaders must address the wars and poverty driving migrants across the Mediterranean from Mideast and African failed states.
For the refugees — and for continental cohesion — the European Union (E.U.) should better live up to its principles (let alone its name) by acting on a proposal expected to be announced on Wednesday that would more equitably resettle migrants across E.U. nations. The current chaotic approach is causing major disruptions in multiple countries, threatening the notion of an open and orderly Europe. Most important, it further endangers the migrants. Kurdi was among many recent victims. Hundreds of others have drowned, and last week 71 migrants, including children, were asphyxiated in a truck-turned-tomb in Austria.
Admirably, many individuals have responded to institutional failures by directly helping migrants. It’s especially impressive to see Greeks, buffeted by their country’s concurrent economic and political crises, act so humanely. Some governments, too, have shown a willingness to shoulder a disproportionate burden. Germany and Sweden, to name two, have been exemplary, at least relative to Hungary, which is erecting fences and other bureaucratic barriers that only encourage human traffickers.
Other Eastern and Central European nations have resisted calls for refugee resettlement. But it’s not just an East-West divide: Denmark has taken a strikingly different, and more defiant, tone on refugee resettlement than Sweden. And while both Britain and France announced over the weekend a willingness to settle more than 20,000 refugees, that pales in comparison with the estimated 800,000 seeking asylum in Germany just this year.
Much is at stake, according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said last week: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, then [Europe’s] close link with universal civil rights will be destroyed and it won’t be the Europe we wished for,” Specifically at risk is the Schengen Agreement, which permits unimpeded travel across 26 European countries. Some governments may be tempted to reimpose passport controls, especially in response to anti-immigrant sentiment that has become a potent political force.
Of course, anti-immigration sentiment isn’t limited to Europe, as evidenced by the strength of Donald Trump in GOP polls. Despite that, the U.S. should play a leadership role by accepting more Syrian refugees while also taking steps to reform its own broken immigration system.
“[European leaders] do tend to make decisions when confronted with crises, and this has been a crisis,” said Frances G. Burwell, vice president for European Union and Special Initiatives at the Atlantic Council. “They have to be much more proactive both at sea and at the land in terms of identifying these smuggling rings but also identifying those at great risks.”
These risks are political — for Europe, the U.S. and the world — but most important, they’re personal. Aylan Kurdi, and scores like him, deserve better.