Bearing and sharing the burden of asylum seekers

Only a few countries in the European Union accept the bulk of asylum seekers who make it across the Mediterranean. Sharing the burden would help alleviate the current migrant crisis.

AP Photo
Migrants wait to disembark from an Iceland vessel at the Messina harbor in southern Italy on May 6 after being rescued in a journey from Libya.

When a court stopped President Obama from granting legal status to millions of people living in the United States illegally in February, it cited the potential for “disproportionate” harm to those states with high numbers of migrants. A similar argument of equity is now playing out in Europe. A few countries being flooded with people crossing the Mediterranean want others in the European Union to better share the burden.

On Wednesday, the EU’s executive arm plans to call for each of the 28 states to accept a quota for fair distribution of refugees and asylum seekers. The plan is only one of the EU’s responses to the mass drownings and dramatic influx of people fleeing troubled lands in Africa and the Middle East.

Right now, only six EU members, led by Germany and Sweden, process the bulk of asylum seekers, who numbered 626,000 last year – the highest since 1992. Many countries take only 100 to 200 each. The proposed quotas would be based on each country’s wealth, population size, unemployment rate, and past numbers of asylum seekers. This would spread the task of relocation and resettlement broadly on the Continent.

Most of those escaping their lands are not trying to reach a particular country in Europe. They are simply fleeing to Europe. In addition, each EU nation has accepted a right to safety for asylum seekers. This goes beyond meeting a call for mercy. Dealing with this migrant crisis is a shared responsibility.

To give Europeans some perspective, they could look at how welcoming Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan have been to millions of Syrian refugees. The numbers for the EU are puny by comparison.

The debate over quotas will be only a warm-up to possible proposals to increase legal immigration to the EU. That idea has gained ground as a way to prevent people taking the dangerous journey from North Africa and instead to wait for safe and legal channels.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker makes the case this way: “If we don’t open the door, even partly, you can’t act surprised when the unfortunate from across the planet break in through the window.”

But first the EU must find an equitable formula for dealing with asylum seekers. 

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