For many migrants, the trip to Europe on a leaky boat has been a deadly gamble — but the tide of desperate Syrians, Somalis, Afghans, and others fleeing war zones or economic privation seems unrelenting. To cope, European Union officials convened yet another emergency meeting for Sept. 14 following the grim discovery of more than 70 decomposing bodies inside an abandoned truck in Austria and the horrifying images of the drowned bodies of Syrian children washing ashore in Turkey. Since January, more than 2,400 migrants have died in the Mediterranean alone, according to the International Organization for Migration. This unfolding tragedy is made worse by the European Union’s failure to mount a cohesive and decisive response to address the crisis at its shores and within its borders.
The burden has been borne disproportionately by some countries, including Sweden and Germany, whose chancellor, Angela Merkel, had harsh words recently for her neighbors. She said the continent’s open-border policy — the principle enshrined in the EU’s Schengen agreement — should be reconsidered unless all the European countries agree to fairly distribute refugees among themselves. More than 300,000 migrants have made it to Europe this year — a third of whom are from Syria alone. The rest are from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, and other conflict-torn and poverty-ridden countries. This year Germany projects it will receive 800,000 asylum applications, four times the number it received last year.
Other European nations, though, have given migrants a much more hostile welcome. In Hungary, where crossings have reached mass numbers, authorities want to build a wall along the border with Serbia to keep refugees out, and the Czech Republic sparked outrage when officials there wrote numbers on the skin of new Syrian arrivals, evoking Nazi concentration camps.
Germany’s call for solidarity and support in dealing with refugees from the rest of the European Union nations is only sensible — and will save lives. The intake process for migrants should be strengthened, with the creation of humane welcome centers and the responsibility to register and resettle refugees shared among all countries, not just assumed by nations at the front line of the crisis. At the same time, a quota system must be adopted in the EU: Each of the bloc’s 28 countries ought to commit to take in a proportional share of asylum seekers.
Without a common refugee policy, the mixed bag of approaches within the EU will only create greater opportunity for smugglers. It will leave a vacuum for them to exploit, which will surely lead to more deaths. Merkel is right: This crisis is threatening to tear apart the open border policy of the EU, much like the Greek debt crisis threatened the euro. This is a big test of the bloc’s ability to speak with one voice.
Meanwhile, the United States should do more. Since the Syrian war began four years ago, fewer than 1,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled here. That’s why US Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois called on the Obama administration to boost the numbers to at least 65,000 by the end of 2016. Even though the increase won’t make much of a dent in the problem, it will show support for Europe during its worst refugee crisis since World War II.