With the approach of summer in Europe, and feeling against the flow of uncontrolled migration starting to build, leaders of the European Union last week made what seems a good deal for genuine asylum seekers. The EU accepted a proposal from Turkey that all Syrians illegally landing on Greek Islands would be sent back to Turkey on the understanding the EU would resettle one Syrian refugee from camps in Turkey for every Syrian sent back.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose decision last year to hear asylum applications in Germany turned the flow into a flood, described the deal as "a breakthrough if it becomes reality". The EU president, Donald Tusk, said it was a major step towards ending Europe's biggest migration crisis since World War II. Turkey was very happy. In return for accepting returned Syrians, it also got an extra 3 billion ($4.9 billion) in aid from the EU and visa-free travel in Europe for Turks.
The only people unhappy appear to be at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the very agency that should be happiest. The crisis at Europe's borders has been created by people trying to jump the UNHCR's queue or, in some cases, pose as asylum seekers. Reports from Europe recently estimate that only about a third of the people arriving on Greek beaches or at Balkan land borders are from Syria. Just as many are said to be from Libya and Afghanistan, where civil conflicts are also rife, but as many again are from countries such as Morocco and Pakistan which are not reported to be suffering unusual strife at present.
Clearly, along with genuine Syrian refugees, there will be unknown numbers from the Middle East and North Africa who can pass as Syrian and take this opportunity to get into the more stable and prosperous countries of Europe if they can.
The UNHCR ought to be concerned about the fact they have swamped the vetting procedures of their desired countries, sapped the political goodwill of Germans last summer and caused EU border states to shut their gates. None of this in the interest of genuine refugees patiently waiting in Turkey for their applications to be considered in the orderly way approved by the UNHCR.
So why has the agency's head, Filippo Grandi, told the European Parliament he is "deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out refugee protection safeguards under international law"? The European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, conceded Turkish and Greek law would need to be amended to comply with the Geneva Convention on refugees. "But this is a matter of detail," he said. "The decision is legal."
If that is the case, it seems like a reasonable answer to a pressing problem. For every queue-jumper returned to Turkey, a law-abiding applicant in genuine need will get entry to Europe. The message should quickly be received: that illegal bids by land or sea are not worth the costs and the risks. The safety of these people and orderly refugee resettlement could both be well served.