Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne.
In July, the number of migrants reaching the borders of the European Union passed 100,000 – the third consecutive month in which a new record was set. In one week in August, 21,000 migrants arrived in Greece. Tourists complained that the summer holiday they had planned on a Greek island was now in the midst of a refugee camp.
Of course, the refugee crisis has far more serious implications. Last week, Austrian authorities found the decomposing bodies of 71 migrants in a Hungarian truck abandoned near Vienna. And more than 2,500 would-be migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean this year, most of them attempting to cross from North Africa to Italy.
Migrants who have made it as far as France are living in tents near Calais, waiting for a chance to get to England by scrambling aboard a freight train passing through the Channel Tunnel. Some of them die, too, falling off trains or getting run over.
Nevertheless, the number of refugees in Europe is still small compared to some other countries. Germany has received more applications for asylum than any other European country, but its six refugees per 1,000 inhabitants is less than a third of Turkey's 21 per thousand, which in turn is dwarfed by Lebanon's 232 per thousand.
At the end of 2014, UNHCR, the United Nations agency for refugees, estimated that there were 59.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the highest level ever recorded. Of these, 1.8 million are awaiting a decision on their asylum applications, 19.5 million are refugees, and the rest are displaced inside their own countries.
Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia are the largest sources of refugees, but many more come from Libya, Eritrea, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Asia, the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar has contributed to a recent increase in the number of refugees.
We cannot blame people for wishing to leave conflict-ridden, impoverished countries and find a better life elsewhere. In their situation, we would do the same. But there must be a better way of responding to their needs.
A few bold thinkers advocate a world with open borders, arguing that this would greatly boost both global GDP and average global happiness. (See, for example, http://openborders.info.) Such arguments ignore our species' lamentable xenophobic tendencies, evidenced all too clearly by the surge in popularity of far-right extremist political parties in Europe.
For the foreseeable future, no government will open its borders to all who want to enter. Indeed, there is only movement in the opposite direction: Serbia and Hungary are building fences to keep migrants out, and there has been talk of reinstating border controls within the Schengen Area, which currently guarantees freedom of movement among 26 European countries.
Instead of simply sealing themselves off, affluent countries should be giving much more support to less affluent countries that are supporting large numbers of refugees: Lebanon, Jordan, Ethiopia, and Pakistan are obvious examples. Refugees living securely in countries that border their own are less likely to attempt hazardous journeys to remote regions and more likely to return home once a conflict is resolved. International support for countries bearing the greatest refugee burden also makes economic sense: it costs Jordan about $3,350 (U.S.) to support one refugee for a year; in Germany, the cost is at least $13,000.
Ultimately, however, we need to reconsider what for many is a sacred and immutable text: the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The Convention, concluded in 1951, was originally limited to persons within Europe fleeing events before that date. It required the signatory countries to allow refugees who reached their territory to stay there, without discrimination or penalty for breaching immigration laws. Refugees were defined as those unable or unwilling to return to their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of "race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion."
In 1967, the restrictions of time and geography were removed, making the Convention universal. That was a noble thing to do, but a key question was never asked: Why should someone who is able to travel to another country have priority over others who are in refugee camps and unable to travel?
Affluent countries have a responsibility to take refugees, and many of them can and should accept more than they do. But as the number of people seeking asylum has grown, it has become difficult for tribunals and courts to determine who is a refugee, as defined by the Convention, and who is a well-coached migrant seeking a better life in a more affluent country.
The Convention has also given rise to the new, often unscrupulous, and sometimes lethal industry of people smuggling. If those who claim asylum in a nearby country were sent to a refugee camp, safe from persecution, and supported financially by aid from affluent countries, people smuggling – and deaths in transit – would be eliminated. Moreover, the incentive for economic migrants to seek asylum would be reduced, and affluent countries could fulfill their responsibility to accept more refugees from the camps, while maintaining control of their borders.
That may not be the best solution, but it may be the most workable. And it looks a lot better than the chaos and tragedy that many refugees are facing now.
Turning away people who manage to reach one's country is emotionally difficult, even if they are being sent to a safe haven. But we should also have compassion for the millions of people who are waiting in refugee camps. We need to give them hope, too.