For Syrian refugees, a legal – and safe – route to Europe

To stem illegal migration by Syrians, the European Union plans to return them to Turkey while accepting the same number legally from refugee camps. Honoring both borders and legal migration may serve as an antidote to the Syrian war.

AP Photo
A Syrian refugee is helped by a volunteer to leave a dinghy on the island of Lesbos, Greece, Feb. 28.

The European Union, faced with the prospect of another wave of migrants breaching its borders this year, has hit upon a novel response. It has arranged with Turkey for a “one-in, one-out” exchange: The EU will send back one Syrian who has crossed by sea into Europe and, in return, take in one Syrian through a legal and orderly process.

If the plan succeeds, claims European Council President Donald Tusk, “The days of irregular migration to Europe are over.”

This EU emphasis on a legal route for those fleeing the Syrian war is more than a practical answer to a political crisis that has divided Europe into pro- and anti-immigrant factions. It is also a humane answer to the dangerous smuggling of Syrians. And it gives hope to millions of them stuck in refugee camps of a possible place to resettle, thus reducing the incentive to take a journey on crowded boats to reach Greece.

To assist Turkey with the deal, the EU has promised $6.6 billion in aid. It also sweetened the deal with other promises, such as visa access for Turks to enter the EU as well as renewed talks for Turkey to possibly join the 28-member union. NATO naval ships have also started to patrol the Aegean Sea to intercept smugglers’ boats and rescue migrants in unsafe conditions.

Many details of the deal still need to be worked out. The EU, for example, must decide on quotas among its member states for accepting the legal migrants. And Turkey must comply with international law in how it assesses the refugees.

“We have to make sure that those who are in need of protection will receive it, but it has to be clear as well that those who have no right to stay in the EU will be quickly and effectively returned,” says Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU minister for migration.

The plan is similar to one worked out decades ago during a mass migration by sea of people fleeing harsh rule in Vietnam. Western governments arranged for an orderly and safe way for nearly a million Vietnamese to resettle.

Providing legal avenues for people to escape a dangerous situation can prevent the kind of mass migration that breaks a nation’s sovereignty and rule of law. The United States, for example, set up a new refugee program in 2014 to accept Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans after a wave of illegal migration into the US.

By asserting respect for law, safety, and sovereignty, the EU and Turkey are offering a welcome counterpoint to the lawlessness and violence in the Middle East, especially in Syria.


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