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Five ways to solve Europe’s refugee crisis

Migrants cross a border line between Serbia and Hungary near Roszke, in southern Hungary, on Sept. 8. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

BRUSSELS – Amid the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, a tide of thousands of asylum-seekers is reaching the continent’s shores faster than they can be accommodated.

So far, the European Union’s 28 nations have been unable to agree on a solution. Ahead of a European Commission proposal  Wednesday for a system to spread asylum-seekers across all E.U. countries, here are a few of the options Europe is considering:

1) Doing nothing.

Europe  tried to make a plan to share out refugees earlier in the summer. At the time, they were talking about only 40,000 people. But that failed after many countries, especially in eastern and central Europe, bridled at being required to take in a set number of refugees. Now the proposal is expected to be triple that – amid deep doubts about nations’ ability to come to an agreement.

Pros: Few, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Each European leader answers to his or her own electorate, which sometimes makes broad E.U. deals very difficult. The status quo is good for countries that don’t like refugees and under current E.U. rules can deport asylum-seekers back to the first E.U. country they entered. That’s almost always Greece, Italy or Hungary, which are buckling under the influx.

Cons: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has thrown open her nation’s doors to asylum-seekers. She warned that without a Europe-wide plan, individual nations might need to reimpose border controls, a major blow to European unity. And with some nations far more generous to refugees than others, human smugglers will prosper, ferrying asylum-seekers to Germany and Sweden, with potentially tragic consequences.

2) Quotas.

This is what European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will propose  Wednesday. He’ll suggest relocating 120,000 asylum-seekers from the front-line nations of Greece, Italy and Hungary and spreading them across Europe, according to European accounts of the draft plans. Together, Germany, France and Spain would take more than half of them, according to a rough draft published by Spain’s El Pais newspaper. The remainder would be spread across the rest of Europe.

Pros: It would help reduce the burden on those three European nations that are on the edges of the European Union and have buckled under the weight of the more than 400,000 asylum-seekers who have arrived so far this year. And though the proposal would fall far short of the numbers needed to address the full scale of the problem, it would still set up a system that could later be expanded. Nations that have resisted hosting refugees, such as Slovakia, may be able to send money instead as a compromise measure.

“Considering the current politics, it is the most pragmatic idea on the table right now,” said Elizabeth Collett, the director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe.

Cons: It’s a drop in the bucket. Germany plans to take in 800,000 asylum-seekers this year, and says it’s ready for 500,000 a year for the next several years. Facing those numbers, the E.U. plan simply doesn’t do enough. And there are many thorny questions to work out: What happens when an asylum-seeker who has family in France gets assigned to Lithuania instead? In a Europe without borders, how would policymakers ensure the refugees stay put? And what happens to asylum-seekers who arrive beyond the quotas? Do they pile up in refugee camps on Europe’s edges, or do they simply keep pushing through to Western Europe?

And many nations, especially in Eastern and Central Europe, are opposed to quotas.

“I do not consider them any real solution to the migration crisis," Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said Monday, according to the Czech News Agency.

3) Military action against the smugglers who bring help refugees get to Europe.

Britain and others have been pushing for U.N. Security Council authorization to deploy navies to board and intercept the flimsy boats that set sail across the Mediterranean from Libya and Egypt to Europe’s shores. The boats, operated by human smugglers, are dangerous, frequently sinking during the passage. More than 2,700 migrants have died this year.

Pros: The plan would discourage the smugglers, who often have ties to organized crime and profit tremendously from the some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Fewer boats crossing the Mediterranean would reduce the immediate crisis for Europe and might discourage some of the economic migrants coming illegally from Africa and South Asia. And a stepped-up naval presence in the Mediterranean might make search-and-rescue operations more successful when smugglers’ ships capsize.

Cons: Stopping smugglers doesn’t address the root causes of the refugee crisis. It just displaces the burden to other countries. And in some ways, these plans are a solution to yesterday’s problem. Over the course of this year, the bulk of migrant traffic to Europe has shifted westward to the Balkans: asylum-seekers make a short sea hop from Turkey to nearby Greek islands, then travel to Western Europe overland through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. The naval plans wouldn’t do anything about that at all.

4) Resettling refugees directly from camps surrounding Syria, and from Syria.

Remember "Schindler’s List?" Or the U.S. efforts to resettle refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s? This would be the 21st-century equivalent, more or less: E.U. diplomats handing out visas on the ground in the countries where more than 4 million Syrian refugees have settled.

Pros: This is arguably the most humane option, since it would  make an end-run around smugglers. Refugees could simply get on a plane from Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan and fly straight to Europe, saving the danger of a smuggled, overland trip that sometimes costs up to $10,000. It’s what British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested  Monday when he said Britain would take in 20,000 Syrian refugees directly from the Middle Eastern camps over the next five years.

“We want to encourage people not to make that dangerous crossing in the first place,” Cameron said.

Cons: Realistically, there’s little political support in Europe to do this on a scale that would actually relieve pressure on the camps. Cameron’s commitment over the next five years is equivalent to what Germany took in this weekend alone. And it’s not clear that handing out visas in the region would stop the separate overland flow to Europe. That’s because the most vulnerable refugees typically jump to the front of the line for resettlement schemes such as the British one. The asylum-seekers currently coming to Europe by land are the ones with the resources to pay a sometimes hefty price to smugglers.

“When you are facing a humanitarian disaster, when you are facing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when you say, ‘I think we can resettle 25 people,' people would just laugh in your face,” said Elspeth Guild, a migration specialist at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies

 5) Bring peace to Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea.

Those are the conflict-ridden countries that are supplying the bulk of the asylum-seekers to Europe. If there wasn’t violence there, Europe wouldn’t have a refugee problem.

Pros: Everyone’s happy.

Cons: Not going to happen anytime soon.