With tens of thousands of people leaving war-torn or impoverished countries to seek asylum or a better life in Europe, criticism of the bloc’s division and dysfunction is accelerating as the deaths mount.
LONDON — The daily toll among refugees and migrants desperately trying to reach Europe — 71 found suffocated in a truck in Austria and an estimated 200 drowned off Libya on Thursday — has underscored the European Union’s (EU) scattered response to increasing waves of asylum seekers.
With tens of thousands of people leaving war-torn or impoverished countries to seek asylum or a better life in Europe, criticism of the bloc’s division and dysfunction is accelerating as the deaths mount. The International Office of Migration has recorded 2,636 deaths linked to Mediterranean crossings this year, and more may have vanished beneath the waves out of sight of rescuers.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has said the migration crisis is a bigger test for the EU than even the Greek financial meltdown. She said Friday that European interior ministers meeting this weekend would be looking into “rapid changes to the asylum system,” and that European leaders could hold an emergency meeting “if the preliminary work is done.”
And none too soon. There is no EU standard for asylum; no common list of countries regarded as in conflict, and thus more likely to produce refugees; and no collective centers where asylum-seekers can be met, housed, fed and screened.
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Instead, a kind of free-for-all has set in, with some countries welcoming and others not, some taking legal responsibility for refugees and others flouting international law.
“While Europe is squabbling, people are dying,” said Alexander Betts, a professor and director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University. “For the first time in its history, the EU is facing a massive influx of refugees from outside the region, and the EU asylum and immigration framework is poorly adapted for it.”
More than 300,000 people have sought to reach Europe in 2015, up from 219,000 in all of last year, as European authorities is faced with the largest influx since World War II. Most are fleeing war, conflict or persecution in countries including Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea.
Front-line states such as Greece, Italy and now Austria and Hungary are “overwhelmed and increasingly unwilling to take more responsibility,” Betts said.
In contradiction to the rules of the Dublin Regulation, formerly known as the Dublin Convention, some countries are simply allowing migrants to freely pass through their territory to richer European states without even trying to ascertain whether they are refugees entitled to asylum or economic migrants, who can be sent back home.
Under the convention, the countries where migrants first enter are supposed to screen them to decide who is a legitimate asylum-seeker or refugee, but those countries are overwhelmed.
Some countries, such as Sweden and Germany, are being generous with their acceptance of refugees, but warn that they cannot be this generous forever. Other countries, such as Britain, are strictly applying regulations to dissuade migrants and asylum seekers, while opposing a European Commission proposal in June for mandatory quotas for settlement, to help share the burden.
Other countries, such as Slovakia and Poland, have said they want only Christian refugees.
The question of immigration is dividing European governments from their electorates, member states from one another and the EU from the values on which it was founded, said François Heisbourg, an analyst with the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
More than 100,000 people arrived in the bloc in July alone, but European leaders “have agreed (to) no coherent response,” he said in a commentary in The Financial Times.
The divisions among member states “are growing unsustainable,” Heisbourg said, with Germany taking about 40 percent of new asylum seekers, while France is taking only 8 percent and Britain, 4 percent.
One of the EU’s fundamental principles is freedom of travel, especially within the borderless “Schengen Area,” which includes much of continental Europe.
But that achievement is in danger, the Austrian foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, said Friday, demanding an urgent meeting of heads of state and government.
Schengen is also expected to be a subject of the interior ministers’ meeting this weekend after the attempted attack on a Thalys train headed to Paris last week.
On the Greek crisis, “We had one meeting after another at the highest level,” Kurz said. “Here, weeks, months go by — and nothing!
Betts said that sharing 310,000 people among the 28 EU countries “should not be unmanageable,” and that the numbers pale when compared with the 3.5 million Syrian refugees that Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon alone are hosting.