With the flood of refugees swarming to its southern shores - and the thousands of people dying in the Mediterranean waters - Europe is not only facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis today but it is also confronted with an unsolvable political problem and, even more profoundly, with the stark recognition that high-minded declarations of principles and values are bound to remain mostly that - declarations - in view of the conflicting realities of the situation on the ground.
Today it is not "only" hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees who are seeking their way to Europe as already overwhelmed neighbouring countries are closing their borders to them. Equal numbers of migrants coming from different war-torn or economically deprived African countries, or from as far as Afghanistan or Bangladesh are ready to risk anything for a place on a rotten ship commandeered by human traffickers that is supposed to get them to the safety and welfare support they expect to find in Europe.
While the 900 victims of the shipwreck off the Italian coast last weekend created an uproar and calls for Europe to take more decisive action, the most that can be expected is more search and rescue patrols and the launching of some concerted action against the well organised gangs of human traffickers operating out of north Africa. Despite the calls for the members of the European Union to accept more refugees, the fact of the matter is that the migrants and refugees issue is radioactive all over Europe. There is no way, for instance, that the European Commission could end up "allocating" a higher quota of refugees that each member country should accept. No government in place could agree to a significant increase in the number of refugees and expect to survive the next election. In a context of still deep economic crisis and heightened concerns about jobs, about the loss of national identity because of the growing presence of migrants, and about security because of Islamist terrorism, European public opinions are not in a welcoming mood. Realism dictates that whatever the emotional reaction that pictures of refugees rescued at sea may elicit, this will not last long enough to generate any change of attitude from the public at large.
The brutal fact is that, whatever the hands wringing and noble declarations, European countries are not ready to accept any significant increase in the number of refugees, lest they would expose themselves to the risk of major social, political and economic upheavals. And even if - by some kind of extraordinary circumstances - these countries were to agree to take more refugees this would not be a solution to the problem but would aggravate it, as this would just end up creating new additional waves of refugees.
Of course nobody would disagree with the need to increase search and rescue missions to try to reduce the number of casualties. One can expect that this will be the first course of action that European countries will agree on these days. However, the only way for Europe to escape the impossible dilemma of either letting people drown in the Mediterranean in the hope of creating a deterrence impact, or rescuing refugees - and then implicitly encouraging other to follow suit - is to tackle the problem upstream. This means providing much greater financial and material assistance to the countries in the immediate proximity of war areas so that refugees can be accommodated there in decent conditions and are easier to repatriate when conditions normalise; this also involves negotiating with some of the "sourcing countries" on the African shores of the Mediterranean to establish and manage camps to shelter these groups of migrants and refugees and try to prevent them to cross the Mediterranean; last but not least this entails waging a ferocious campaign involving special forces against the gangs of human traffickers. This course of actions would need to go in parallel with intensified military efforts to eradicate ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and to bring the civil war in Syria to closure either by coming to terms with the fact that Bashar Al Assad will survive or through an all out offensive to finish him - come what may.
All of this is obviously easier said than done. So there is no prospect of improvement looming on the horizon, especially as the better weather coming with the spring and summer seasons will encourage even more refugees to try their luck towards the European coasts. One can expect with almost absolute certainty more dreadful news of thousands more casualties in the Mediterranean waters.
However, the present crisis raises fundamental questions about the way the international system put in place to address the issues of refugees is functioning. This system set in the aftermath of WW II was based on the assumption that the great majority of people seeking refuge in other countries in times of war or turmoil would just go back home once the situation in their country would have been resolved. This is not anymore the case, as war torn countries happen to be countries beset by poverty and economic and social deprivation. So the reality is that refugees finding shelter in richer countries have the natural tendency to want to stay there and benefit from better standards of living.
The developed countries granting asylum to refugees have increasingly to face the fact that it is not a matter of offering temporary shelter and assistance but accepting that a significant number of the people they receive will remain there, legally or not and whatever the outcome of the conflict that had led them to flee their country. This problem is made even more difficult to manage because of the Schengen agreement that makes it extremely easy to move from one European country to another once admitted in the European space; and it is also made more acute and politically explosive given the growing wariness among many segments of the European public about the growing size of Muslim minorities on the continent.
According to most estimates, the number of refugees and migrants reaching Europe was around 170,000 in 2014 and the UNHCR estimates that 500,000 could try to make the trip this year. While everybody recognises that ending the war and turmoil in the Middle East and parts of Africa is the only possible long-term solution to the refugees crisis, nobody expects this to happen anytime soon. Which means that beyond the humanitarian rhetoric the only option for Europe is to devise the most efficient "containment policy" that will be "wrapped" in a way to limit the unavoidable emotions that cruel images from the Mediterranean shores will continue to generate.