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Europe Under Siege?

BRUSSELS – Many Europeans feel like their countries are under assault, as huge numbers of migrants flow across their borders. Whether they are being exposed to refugees firsthand, or just seeing images of them splashed across newspaper pages, Europeans are well aware of the vast numbers of desperate people trying to enter European Union territory by any means possible. But this awareness has yet to translate into a unified response.

Tensions among member states seem to be rising, perhaps because the problem differs so greatly across countries. On a per capita basis, Sweden receives 15 times more asylum applications than the United Kingdom, where official policy toward refugees remains the most hostile. Germany has now become the main destination overall, receiving nearly 40% of the EU total; even on a per capita basis, this is several times more than the EU average.

Of course, there are clear rules about how responsibility for refugees is delineated: according to the so-called Dublin Regulation, the first EU member state into which a refugee crosses is responsible for that person’s asylum application. But this is clearly problematic, as it puts the entire burden of refugees on the EU’s frontier countries. Though this may not have been a huge problem in the 1990s, when EU countries received, in all, only 300,000 asylum applications annually, it cannot work in a year when the total is expected to be triple that number.

Smaller border countries like Hungary and Greece simply do not have the capacity to register and house hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers. And larger countries like Italy have an incentive to overlook the large numbers of refugees landing on their shores, knowing that, if nothing is done, those refugees will likely head elsewhere (mainly to northern Europe).