If Europe’s leaders needed a stark reminder of the human cost of their equivocation over the tragedy deepening on their borders, the heartbreaking image of a drowned child — reportedly from Kobani, a Syrian town ravaged by fierce fighting between the Islamic State and Kurdish forces — on a Turkish beach is it. Even as thousands of refugees throng the train station in Budapest, Hungary, where the government has barred ongoing travel to the rest of Europe to those fleeing persecution and war in their home countries, more asylum seekers continue to pour into the continent — or die trying. It is a humanitarian emergency that has been months in the making, exacerbated by the EU’s failure to mount any sort of effective collective response. Just as events this summer undermined the notion of Europe as a cohesive economic unit, the faltering, unilateral and often selfish actions of European nations have struck at the core of the idea of the Union, and its defining values.
Where Germany, Italy and Sweden have accepted sizeable numbers of asylum applicants, others, especially the Eastern European nations, have supplemented meagre asylum acceptance rates by erecting razor-wire fences and deploying the police. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany this week rightly called for Europe to evolve a strategy to manage the crisis practically, humanely — and together. But the only coordinated European strategy at the moment appears to be a shared, and shameful, desire to pass the problem on. It is no one’s case that this, a crisis of unprecedented complexity, the worst Europe has faced since World War II, is solely the continent’s cross to bear. But without drawing up a common asylum policy, Europe will lack the moral force to impel countries in the Middle East, such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, to accept more refugees.
Despite the characterisation of those desperate enough to risk their lives, and the lives of their children, to make a perilous journey, as “economic migrants”, only a minority take to the seas in rickety boats to escape poverty. In any case, estimates suggest an influx of one million asylum seekers into Europe this year — a large number, yes, but one that is manageable for a continent with an ageing population of 500 million, provided the burden of resettling these refugees is shared across the EU. An earlier EU plan, scuppered by member nations like Spain, to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy should be expanded and made mandatory. This is an opportunity for Europe to demonstrate leadership, and affirm its commitment to its founding values.