Across the Mediterranean, the human tidal wave of misery has turned into a tsunami. Since the day Alan Kurdi's little body washed up on shore, many more children have drowned on the perilous voyage to Europe. As bureaucrats wring their hands in Brussels, thousands of refugees and migrants huddle in makeshift camps. Thousands more are coming every day. From Baghdad to Lebanon and Kabul, and smugglers' embarkation points throughout Africa, the word is out: The time to go is now.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-hearted, open-ended welcome to asylum-seekers has backfired, as it was bound to. The system has been overwhelmed. Last Saturday alone, more than 13,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Munich. Now Germany has closed its Austrian border to non-EU citizens, on a "temporary," "emergency" basis. Most of Eastern Europe has flatly rejected the idea of a compulsory quota system to distribute refugees among EU member countries. In Austria and Hungary and the Czech Republic, fences or border controls are back. The moral high ground cannot bear too much reality.
Moral shaming will not fix this. Appeals to burden-sharing will not fix this. Arguments that immigrants are essential to boost Europe's sluggish economies will not fix this. Even earnest editorials in The New York Times won't fix this. The only fix is for the EU to regain control of its external borders, so that it can manage the influx. And that's not going to happen soon.
Europe's underlying problem is that a unified asylum policy is impossible. Its member states are too different economically, politically, historically and culturally. High-minded thinkers of the bien-pensant class are busily condemning Eastern Europeans as xenophobic and racist for rejecting their share of the burden. But there are good reasons for their reluctance. Poland's Lech Walesa, who led that nation's independence movement, puts it this way. "Our salaries and houses are still smaller than those in the West. Many people here don't believe that they have anything to share with migrants. Especially that they see that migrants are often well-dressed, sometimes better than many Poles," he told The New York Times.
In fact, the idea of a quota system was doomed from the start. It could only work if economic conditions and social benefits were roughly equal everywhere. In Estonia, the sixth-poorest member of the EU, refugees are entitled to receive €90 per month. Refugees in Denmark got €797, until the recent government cutback. Refugees who are settled in poorer countries will simply migrate to richer and more generous ones. Refugees who are settled in the empty German countryside will simply move to Munich or Berlin. The idea that people will stay put because of some bureaucrat's relocation plan is just a fantasy.
Another problem is that the EU's doctrine of asylum is framed as an absolute human right, unconditionally available to all qualified applicants regardless of practical or political considerations. In other words, if you show up they have to take you in. This may be the law, but it's politically unenforceable, as Ms. Merkel is about to find out. As Walter Russell Mead writes in The Wall Street Journal, "European bureaucrats tend to see asylum as a legal question, not a political one, and they expect political authorities to implement the legal mandate, not quibble with it or constrain it."
As it is, the system is a mess. It's often difficult (both morally and practically) to distinguish refugees from economic migrants. What about refugees fleeing for their lives, versus refugees who've fled from refugee camps? What about Europe's utter inability to keep track of all the people who arrive, and the widespread failure to deport people who are rejected for asylum? What about Europe's stagnant economies, its sky-high youth unemployment, and its miserable track record in integrating its existing immigrant populations? Shouldn't those things give even the most high-minded people a bit to chew on?
The biggest problem of all is that we are facing the worst asylum crisis since the Second World War. It will probably get worse before it gets better. Europe – and Canada – can take in only a fraction of the afflicted. And no amount of moral posturing will change that.