The conventional wisdom about the refugee crisis in Europe is that the humanitarian approach is to open the borders — let anyone who comes stay indefinitely and provide them with generous subsidies to start a new life in Europe. But this approach has been a complete failure. According to the International Organization for Migration, 3,279 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean in 2014, and 3,771 died in 2015.
Why are these people willing to risk their lives to get to Europe? The stock answer we read in the media is that they are fleeing violence in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. But the truth is more complex.
Many, if not most, of those who are dying at sea are already residing in safe countries, like Turkey. A shockingly honest new BBC Radio 4 documentary series, A New Life in Europe, sheds light on the motivations of migrants and unintentionally makes the case for stricter border enforcement better than anything I've read or heard. (The full 16-episode series can be found here.)
Host Manveen Rana follows the Dhnie family, Syrians who had lived in Jordan and then Turkey, to chronicle their journey to Germany via Greece, Macedonia, Hungary, and other countries. In the first episode, we learn that they aren't fleeing violence — they live in Izmir, Turkey — but are simply seeking a "better life". They want to live in the Netherlands because they've heard from other Syrians who made it there that they'll get a place to live, a lump sump of 8,000 euros to buy furniture and household items, and a monthly stipend of 400 euros per person for living expenses. (They wind up in Germany, not the Netherlands, however.)
After their initial attempts to cross into Europe via foot and by boat failed, Abdul Rauf, the family patriarch, said through his children's translation that most of the Syrians who have already made it to Europe are "bad people". "The problem with Europe is that it's letting in all the donkeys," he said. "There should be IQ tests before entering."
Abdul Rauf said that Europe should simply "close the door" on refugees. "If they would close the door, people would try to help themselves here. ... We would change our plan, we wouldn't have to keep trying and waiting for another boat. We would look for a better life somewhere else. They are throwing a piece of bread tied to a string and they just keep pulling it away from you."
Those nine words — throwing a piece of bread tied to a string — essentially sum up the open borders approach. No migrant's story occurs in a vacuum. One family finds a new life and generous subsidies in Amsterdam, for example, and they share that story with many others who are inspired to pursue the same thing. What Abdul Rauf was saying was essentially: "How can I justify keeping my family here, living in poverty in Turkey, when I could follow others who are now getting thousands of euros to live in Europe?" His frustration lies in the fact that Europeans aren't sending him and others like him plane tickets to get to Amsterdam or Frankfurt, so instead, they risk their lives at sea.
Abiyan, a 16-year-old who served as the family spokesperson because he speaks English, claimed that Germany, Sweden, and other countries were asking for more migrants to come. Rana corrected him, saying "They're not asking for more people, they're accepting them if they come. There's a difference." But the family's response, sent through Abiyan, but clearly a consensus based on the knowing laughter that followed, illuminated a very important cultural divide that can teach both Europeans and Americans something about migration. "That's the same thing actually," he said.
In our First World mindset, letting people stay and inviting them to come are two different things. But based on my extensive experience with migrants, I think this family's mentality is quite typical. Many calculate, just as they have, that if a country lets you stay and gives you subsidies, your decision to violate its border has been legitimized, vindicated. To them, governments that let migrants stay may as well be mailing them an invitation to come.
My point here is not to argue that asylum seekers should be dealt with harshly or that we shouldn't have empathy for families like this one. Migrants everywhere should be treated fairly, lawfully, and with respect. The mistreatment of migrants we've seen in various corners of Europe in recent months is inexcusable. But there's an important difference between being fair and having a policy that, while claiming to be humane, actually results in people dying at sea. Unless you're going to provide everyone in at-risk countries like Syria and Iraq with plane tickets to European capitals, which isn't going to happen, the most humane approach is to be tough on asylum seekers, approving only the most deserving cases.
Enforcement has a huge deterrent effect. Open borders has the opposite impact. We can learn from the mistakes Europe is making here, too. The notion that we can bring an end to our own illegal immigration crisis with a huge amnesty seduces many. But the truth is that many aspiring migrants will see this move through the same lens the Dhnie family observed in Europe, and conclude that there is no difference between letting people stay and inviting more to come.