European countries are drawing themselves into a more and more vicious circle by closing their borders to asylum seekers. The situation in Greece, the main point of entry after Turkey, is dramatic. In 2015, 500 000 refugees arrived in Lesvos island while so far this year more than 50 000 arrived there. Also in the Western Balkans thousands of migrants and refugees remain stranded in substandard conditions.
Many states are considering or enacting counter-productive policies, such as erecting fences, reducing asylum seeker benefits, seizing their belongings, making asylum seekers pay for staying at reception centres or for time in detention, restricting family reunification, and granting only temporary, unstable forms of status.
Many of these measures not only run counter to European human rights standards, they are also harmful to social cohesion and ineffective. Instead of helping these people, European countries are engaging in a race to repel migrants, in violation of the principle of inter-state solidarity and of human rights standards.
Europe is in urgent need of a migration paradigm shift. Although there is no magic wand that will solve this complex issue in the short-run, European countries know that they have a whole range of possibilities to find medium to long-term solutions.
First of all they have to put their weight behind the negotiations to find a political solution to the conflicts in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Second, they have to ramp up relocation of asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy and their resettlement from conflict areas and neighbouring countries.
Third, they have to significantly expand legal venues for people to arrive in a safe and orderly way, such as family reunification and humanitarian visas.
Fourth, they must adopt effective return policies which allow the repatriation of those who do not have protection needs in a way which is compliant with human rights, thus avoiding sending people back to countries where their safety is not ensured.
In addition, they have to increase support for UNHCR’s efforts to provide for the basic needs of asylum seekers and refugees in and near conflict areas.
These measures require political leadership and considerable resources. But the continued chaotic arrivals, beggar-thy-neighbour responses, and willingness to backslide on human rights have bigger political, societal and economic costs. We are already beginning to pay that bill, and its size is rapidly growing.