It's time to talk about asylum, about our European Union with its execrable policy based on deterrence, fortification and deportation. It's time to talk about the fact that people are starving, drowning and otherwise suffering on their way to our borders. And it's time to address the question as to why these things happen every day: today, tomorrow and the day after that.
It's time, in other words, to talk about the culprits: red wine, the Volkswagen Golf and strawberry cake.
We all like a drop of fine wine every now and then. German President Joachim Gauck, who recently spoke out in favor of a more humane asylum policy, is no different. Before he even became president, he used to drop by Berlin's café NÖ! every now and then for a glass of quality red. VW Golfs, too, are widely appreciated here in Germany. Some 114,200 people bought a new one between January and June; prices for a base model start at €17,325 ($22,285). And strawberry cake? I found myself in the cafeteria on a recent afternoon indulging myself as a way to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner: A small piece of pleasure for the affordable price of €1.20.
But who really needs red wine to live? Or a VW Golf? Or strawberry cake? Nobody. They are certainly not necessary for survival. But that is what we have decided to spend our money on -- instead of sending it to places where people are dying because they don't have enough. Places where people have no future, leading them to flee. It is our red wine, Golfs and cakes against their lives.
That is Europe's original sin, one into which pretty much everyone on the Continent is born, whether we like it or not. The gray area begins with the first bottle of red wine that nobody needs. It marks the loss of innocence, no matter what kind of asylum policies one supports: strict or loose, with or without razor wire. It marks the moment when we begin talking about prosperity rather than survival, and about how much of that prosperity we are willing to sacrifice. It is not, of course, a discussion as to whether we are prepared to give up our prosperity altogether.
Striving for happiness is programmed into humanity's DNA. Searching for that happiness in material consumption is the path chosen by the overwhelming majority of Europeans. It is also the path subscribed to by the majority of refugees seeking to make a new start in the EU. Most of them aren't primarily motivated by a desire to take part in democracy. They are mostly coming to participate in peace and prosperity.
The Beginning of Isolation
It doesn't matter if Europeans seek their happiness in capitalism, the quest for more prosperity, or socialism, the quest to fairly distribute more prosperity. The desire is the same -- for a life that is better than one focused solely on survival. But that is also why that quest necessarily implies erecting barriers. Because in today's world -- and, given population growth, tomorrow's as well -- our resources are not nearly plentiful enough for everybody to reach European levels of prosperity.
The very first bottle of wine thus marks the beginning of the isolation that leads to prosperity, allows it to grow and ensures that it will continue. But it also marks the beginning of our responsibility for the barbed-wire fences on the EU's external borders. And for the fact that such fences deprive people of their last bit of hope.
Just last week, there were two catastrophes on the Mediterranean, costing the lives of more than 600 people. But with the weather still holding this fall, more are likely to attempt the journey on rickety vessels overcrowded with suffering. The painful images will continue to pull at our hearts and consciences. The images are clear and in sharp focus, and they demand answers that are just as focused: What should be done? The images demand quick, simple answers to stop the dying -- but also to stop the flood of images that are inconveniencing Europeans, standing as they do in marked contrast to the image we have of our civilized societies.
In contrast to the 1990s, empathy and sympathy for the refugees is widespread today. That is commendable, but it also the product of our desire to no longer be forced into feeling pity.
There is always a yearning for clear, good answers. Indeed, that yearning grows in direct correlation with helplessness. But when it comes to asylum policy, nothing is clear, nothing is obviously good, everything is complicated and confusing. Policies that seem just good may also provide false incentives for even greater crowds to come. Measures to prevent more people from transgressing our borders almost always have dangerous, even deadly, side effects.
Repository for Hypocrisy
For example: Following the catastrophe off the island of Lampedusa in the fall of 2013, which saw 360 people drown, Italy boosted patrols in the hopes of being able to respond more quickly to emergency situations. It was the correct decision, but for traffickers who make their money on suffering, it was seen as an invitation to send even less seaworthy vessels out to sea from North Africa.
Or: In July 2012, Germany's high court ordered that asylum applicants be given a larger allowance. That, too, was the right call, but shortly thereafter there was an increase in the number of Roma making their way to Germany from southeastern Europe. Aid organizations in the Balkans began complaining that the attraction of more money meant that Roma children were pulled out of school for the journey northwards and that programs attempting to improve integration in the region failed as a result.
The EU's decision to spend millions each year to improve border security also makes sense from a deterrence standpoint. But it makes the trip to Europe more difficult and increases the rates that traffickers are able to charge. That, in turn, means that it isn't the poorest of the poor who are coming to Europe; the impoverished don't have the €5,000 to pay a trafficker. Rather, it is the Developing World's middle class that is coming, mostly young men sent in the hope they will eventually earn enough to help support their families back home. Their departure, though, makes it even more difficult for their home countries to lift themselves out of poverty.
The desire for clear answers is confronted by the fact that there are none. The result is that asylum policy has become a repository for hypocrisy. Many of the answers given by policymakers are not completely thought through, often out of a desire to avoid the logical shortcoming that invariably lurks. Pseudo-solutions are the consequence.
Hardliners, for example, are fond of saying that the refugee problem shouldn't be solved here in Europe but back home in the countries of origin. It is, they argue, their responsibility, perhaps with a bid of development aid from the EU. Were the situation in Africa to improve, they believe, more people would opt to stay. It is a pleasant notion. But development aid isn't even close to sufficient to save the world. One could just as well ask God to make it rain twice a day in the Sahel region so that rice could be planted there.
Hardliners also demand that asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected be deported immediately. They argue that such a policy would send a signal to those in Asia or Africa who are thinking of trying to emigrate to Europe. What they don't say, though, is that a large share, if not the largest share, of asylum seekers can't be deported. Many of them come from countries that are wracked by civil war, making it illegal to return them. Other countries refuse to take their citizens back. And in many cases, the country of origin simply isn't known.
A Messy Compromise
Such blind spots can just as easily be found on the other side, among those lobbying on behalf of the asylum seekers, among aid groups and among the kindhearted. They point their fingers at the EU and demand that member states accept more refugees, noting that places such as Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon have together taken millions of people fleeing the Syrian civil war while the EU has only taken a few tens of thousands. All of which is true. But people on this side of the debate never say what Europe's maximum should be. They never talk about how and where immigration should be regulated. The idea of an upper limit is a poison with which pro-asylum groups don't wish to contaminate themselves.
Their support of the needy is honorable. But as long as their pro-immigration arguments aren't accompanied by a renouncement of red wine, VW Golfs and strawberry cake, they are also disingenuous. Someone has to make the resources available for unchecked immigration. And in this case, "someone" is another word for the state and the EU. But to support unlimited immigration, the state would have to grab much deeper into our pockets, to the point that it could endanger our comfortable prosperity. Would asylum supporters, would the population at large, accept such a thing to help our fellow human beings and to put an end to our horrific policy focused on keeping people out?
No. Otherwise we would have done so long ago.
Asylum policy is a messy compromise, somewhere on the continuum between saintly and heartless. The only goal should be that of coping with the suffering, that of the refugees themselves and our own, moral distress. But how that is done is important. If a compromise is going to be messy, it should at least be the best possible messy compromise. European, and German, asylum policy hasn't gotten there yet.
Limiting asylum rights only to those people who are being persecuted is a distortion -- an arbitrary curtailment -- of the right to a dignified life. Do people facing death by starvation have less of a right to assistance than people facing death via torture? Do we really want to keep out those who have nothing to eat while accepting those who are oppressed? Economic desperation is not grounds for asylum according to German law.
Germany points to its past -- to the fact that hundreds of thousands of Germans left the country to escape the clutches of the Nazi regime -- when making the moral case for the need to accept refugees. But that offers little justification for why economic refugees should be rejected. If Germany is able to accept more refugees, it must broaden its definitions to include the poorest of the poor.
How We Are
But a fair distribution of the burdens within the European Union must also be addressed. It makes no sense, for example, that Italy alone must finance its naval operations aimed at pulling ship-wrecked would-be refugees out of the water. The operation is called "Mare Nostrum," or Our Sea. The EU treats it as mare vestrum, your sea, your costs. The Italians have understandably grown tired of the status quo.
And then there is the Dublin Regulation, the convention which mandates that asylum seekers often have to remain for years in the country where they first set foot in the EU. That, too, disadvantages country's on the EU's periphery. They are overwhelmed, a situation which leads to asylum seekers being poorly treated. A distribution system based on the population of EU member states is also problematic, but it would almost certainly be preferable to the current arrangement.
Last year, the EU border control agency Frontex intercepted more than 100,000 refugees on Europe's external borders. They believe that number will be even higher this year. In North Africa, in particular, there is currently a vast number of people waiting to take a chance at reaching the prosperous shores of Europe. The stampede on its borders has forced Europe to take a clear look at a decision it has long since made. Every day, people are dying because Europeans would like to hang on to their prosperity. Mercy is calibrated according to the dreadfulness of the images that we have such a hard time digesting.
We don't like what we have become. But that's how we are.