Images of a boy on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey, who had drowned trying to flee to Greece from the Syrian Civil War, shocked Europe yesterday. The Times of Israel has a representative roundup of the reaction from the European press:
“If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don’t change Europe’s attitude to refugees, what will?” The Independent said.
The Huffington Post’s UK edition said: “Do Something, David” — a reference to Prime Minister David Cameron who has pursued a hard line against migrant arrivals.
The image appeared on the website of Spain’s El Pais, El Mundo and El Periodico, which titled the photo “The drowning of Europe”.
In Italy, the La Repubblica daily tweeted the image saying: “One photo to silence the world.”
Good. Europe’s conscience—and the world’s—ought to be shocked. It is tragically too late for the boy in the photo, but there are hundreds of thousands more like him. We have been writing about the plight of the refugees hitting Europe, or drowning on the way, for over two years now; if this photo means that the nations of Europe will get more serious about fixing a broken migration system, some good may yet come of tragedy.
But it won’t be easy. The challenges facing any attempt by Europe to address this crisis are immense. It is insufficient for newspapers and humanitarians to wring their hands; the following five policy challenges—each monumental in its own right—will all have to be surmounted in order to “do something” meaningful:
1. Syria: The drowned boy was fleeing the Syrian Civil War, as are hundreds of thousands others like him. As the Washington Post noted the other day, since the start of that conflict, 200,000 Syrians have died, 4 million have become refugees, and another 7 million have been internally displaced. Only about half the country’s population lives where it used to. Of the 800,000 asylum applicants predicted this year in Germany, most are expected to be Syrian. The West missed its chance to back the moderate rebels early in the Syrian Civil War. Now the country is split between the Assad regime, ISIS, and other Islamist rebels led by al Nusra—each of which has committed atrocities against civilians on a large scale. We can either exert real military force and political pressure to change the situation, or accept a peace that leaves one or more of these groups in place. Both options entail large costs. But until there’s peace in Syria, the refugee flow from the Eastern Mediterranean will not stop.
2. Libya: The other main port of departure (if one can call it that) for immigrants to Europe is Libya. An irony: While our failure to intervene made the situation in Syria worse, our intervention in Libya led to the complete collapse of the country. And without a plan for what to do after our intervention there, we just went home. Immigrants coming from Libya proper are, like the Syrians, war refugees, but the collapse of the Libyan state has also opened the doors to massive economic migration from Africa. The demographic pressure here is immense, and it’s hard to see it slowing absent a functional government being reestablished in Libya. Again the choices are ugly: back a strongman, invade again, or countenance a Libyan incursion from an imperfect ally such as Egypt.
3. Regaining control of the borders: No matter whether you want to welcome large numbers of refugees and migrants or keep them out, you have to regain control of the borders. Unless Europe deters crossings, large numbers of desperate people will keep taking to the Mediterranean in overcrowded, unsafe boats, often hoping to be rescued as much as to make land. Continuing passively to encourage those voyages through lax border enforcement is barbaric. If Europe wants to take in bigger numbers of refugees, it should send rescue ships or allow steamships and ferries to provide cheap transit from port to port. Either way, it has to deter the deadly, illegal crossings.
4. Open the economy: European unemployment is now at 10.9 percent—and that counts as good news, because that’s the lowest it’s been in three years. Europe’s sclerotic economies have for some time been unable to employ even the citizens that are already there; European social services are also straining to adjust to the new realities of 21st-century economics and demographics. To offer new lives to migrants, both nation-states and the EU will have to make significant adjustments to things like employment regulations and benefits. This was already inevitable, but it’s being resisted fiercely. Now, unpopular economic reforms will have to be undertaken under the additional pressure of a Great Wave of new arrivals.
5. Win democratic acceptance: On top of all this, EU leaders will need to convince the peoples of Europe, who spent the last hundred years bloodily sorting themselves into nation-states, to accept these newcomers on equal terms. “Tsk-tsking” anti-migrant sentiment is not a substitute for a real policy, and it’s in fact likely to inflame populist feelings. Many Europeans can be deeply generous, and writing off the masses as wretched xenophobes seems inaccurate and uncharitable. Recent events in Iceland, where ten thousand people out of a nation of 300,000 have offered refugees places in their homes, has shown that. But if the peoples of Europe feel their new neighbors have been unilaterally imposed on them by elites, the reaction will probably get ugly.
The United States bears a great deal of responsibility in this crisis, particularly for the situations in Syria and Libya. But it appears that the Obama Administration will not let anything—not the distress of its allies, not the use of chemical gas, not even the threat of nuclear proliferation—draw it back into the Middle East in a serious way. The plain truth is, Washington will not act until 2017 at the earliest.
And while it’s fair to complain of a lack of U.S. leadership—as we’ve said before, Europe functions so much better when America is engaged—it’s also fair to say that many of these problems, including the military ones, are things European states should be able to handle themselves. Acting to stabilize Libya is not “adventurism”, but a matter of urgent national security. Enforcing a border, reforming the economy, and developing coherent immigration and asylum policies are all things mature, developed democracies should be able to do. Insofar as Europe isn’t capable of doing these things, that’s a sign of deeper problems that need to be addressed, not papered over. The challenges are big, but the newspapers are right: it is time to “do something.”