Europe must rethink immigration – the human tide is not about to stop

They come by land and by sea, walking, swimming, too often drowning. Europe's asylum and refugee crisis has now reached "historic proportions", according to a new report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In the first six months of this year, 137,000 migrants arrived by sea, an increase of 83% on 2014. Around 10,000 people a month cross the Serbian land border with Hungary, ie into the Schengen free travel zone.

This is a crisis that demands a considered, strategic response from Europe. The human tide is not about to ebb. The post-1918 settlement in the Middle East has collapsed. Libya, Syria and Iraq no longer function as sovereign, independent states. As Isis, the Islamic State, expands and entrenches, the exodus will only increase.

Germany has taken in 226,000 asylum seekers and 217,000 refugees. (An asylum seeker is a displaced person requesting refugee status and international protection.) France is home to a total of 309,000 asylum seekers and refugees and Sweden 226,000. In June EU countries agreed to take in another 60,000 people. "It is, to tell the disturbing truth, a very modest effort," said Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission. Lebanon, in comparison, has taken in 1.1 million refugees and Jordan 737,000.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria has built a fence along its border with Turkey. Hungary is planning one on its frontier with Serbia. "Europe cannot hide behind walls and fences. We would like to see more vision and more leadership," said William Spindler, a UNHCR spokesman. "Five hundred million people live in the EU, the richest single economy in the world and they should be able to resettle a few hundred thousand Syrian refugees."

Legal avenues need to be opened, so that asylum seekers do not have to risk their lives to reach safety, says Spindler. "Many of those coming already have relatives in Europe. Family reunification could be made easier."

The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s can set a precedent, he argues. Hundreds of thousands fled ethnic cleansing and were granted temporary humanitarian admission to nearby European countries. But once the conflict ended, many returned home. "If this was done now in a safe, orderly way it would be much easier to prepare for the people's arrival. It would allow officials to make forecasts, and plan school places and apartments."

Europe needs a complete overhaul of the discussion about immigration, says Carne Ross of Independent Diplomat, a diplomatic advisory group. "The debate is impoverished by its reliance on the false terminology of 'illegal' or 'economic' migrants, as if wanting to escape grinding poverty is illegitimate. The evidence is very clear that immigration benefits everyone economically in the end. Cultural diversity is better and more enriching than monocultural homogeneity and narrow-mindedness."

History too, teaches the worth of welcoming the dispossessed. In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled 200,000 Jews from Spain. Like today's migrants, some perished in the Mediterranean, victims of ship captains who dumped them overboard. But most survived and built new lives in the Ottoman empire, bringing it a wealth of new skills and knowledge.

When Sultan Bayezid II, pictured left, heard the plan of the Spanish monarchs, he was incredulous. "Do you call this king a wise man, who impoverishes his own land and enriches ours?" he asked, and sent a fleet of boats to rescue the Jews.

Many immigrants have much to offer Europe. The very act of making the journey from the Middle East or Africa shows courage, determination and enterprise. A UNHCR survey of Syrian refugees in Greece showed that 40 per cent were university-educated. Some European countries are a facing a demographic crisis that immigration could help ameliorate. Projections by Eurostat show that Germany's population will decline from 82 million to 65.4 million by 2080, while Poland will decline from 38.4 million to 29.6 million, a loss of more than a fifth.

Vision is needed, but extremists exploit migration to shift the debate Rightwards, often with the tacit consent of mainstream politicians, says Ralf Melzer, of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a Berlin think-tank. European leaders must spell out Europe's legal duties and humanitarian obligations and its capability to host refugees. "The discourse is being poisoned by this mistreatment of migration," says Melzer. "European politicians need to stop looking at opinion polls and having a tactical approach. They need to inform people what is happening and put it in an international context."