PARIS – Europe is facing an historic moment. By the end of this year, the number of people applying for asylum in the European Union will exceed one million. The human cost of this refugee crisis is appalling. Yet, in all but a handful of cases, the response of Europe’s governments has been tentative, at best: acknowledging the need to do more, while fearing the implications.
Some politicians fear the burden that migrants will impose on local communities and taxpayers. Others fear extremists masquerading as genuine refugees. Above all, many are scared of public opinion, which – for all the heart-warming scenes of welcome and support for asylum-seekers – remains hesitant and even hostile to the prospect of still more migrants from war-torn, troubled countries, especially if they practice a different religion.
European leaders cannot afford to be afraid. The refugee crisis is not one from which they can opt out. No magic wand will empower leaders to transport more than a million people back across the Aegean and the Bosphorus to Mosul and Aleppo, or across the Mediterranean to Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan.
The reintroduction of border controls and the construction of fences may buy time for over-stretched countries, but no one can seriously expect to keep out people who are so desperate to move. Given the dire conditions in the countries from which they are fleeing, perhaps half of the asylum-seekers will qualify for residency under even the strictest rules. So, whatever the sensitivity or ambivalence of public opinion, European leaders will have to find a bold, coordinated, and unified response.