The Truth About the Migrant Crisis

Tragic Choices, Moral Hazards, and Potential Solutions

Syrian refugees walk towards Greece's border with Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 14, 2015. Alexandros Avramidis / Reuters

As the world watches wave after wave of migrants and refugees pour into and across Europe, what was once shocking now seems routine.

There can be no doubt that a major crisis, both humanitarian and political, is under way.  Hundreds of thousands pay large sums to Libyan smugglers, risking their lives on unseaworthy boats to traverse the treacherous Mediterranean waters; the smugglers send distress signals to round-the-clock European rescue patrols, and when the aid vessels respond, smugglers ram the patrol vessels or scuttle their boats. Smugglers in Turkey overload clients onto small inflatable boats, point them toward nearby Greek tourist islands within sight of the Turkish coastline, and instruct them to puncture the boats upon arrival. 

Hundreds of boat people camp on tourist beaches in the wealthy Italian Riviera. Thousands more trek across Italy and France to makeshift camps near the French port of Calais, where they wait to smuggle themselves onto trains and trucks entering the Channel Tunnel to the United Kingdom. Tens of thousands travel by foot, train, bus, taxi, and smuggler van across Serbia, Macedonia, and Hungary to claim asylum in Germany, Sweden, and Austria.

Migrants rest inside an improvised shelter in the underground parking of a train station in Salzburg, Austria September 13, 2015.
Migrants rest inside an improvised shelter in the underground parking of a train station in Salzburg, Austria September 13, 2015. Dominic Ebenbichler / Reuters


The actual numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean into European Union territory, insofar as the limited available evidence is credible, are daunting. During the first eight months of 2015, well over 400,000 people successfully made the fraught journey. In the first part of this year, about 80 percent were departing from the now failed state of Libya and landing on Italian soil  More recently, migrant smuggling activities from Turkey to nearby Greek islands have increased. 

In increasingly raucous political and press debates in Europe and elsewhere, recent movements are being described as new “disasters,” “policy failures,” and even “invasions” that the EU and its member states have proven incapable of addressing effectively. In fact, such “irregular” migration across the Mediterranean is hardly new,

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