Why The Sweden-Denmark Border Controls Will Worsen The Refugee Crisis

A Syrian refugee child arrives on a raft along with other Syrian refugees on a Lesbos beach on the Greek island. Europe must pull together to solve its refugee crisis following the new Sweden-Denmark border measures, says Asylum Aid. Reuters/Giorgos Moutafis

It was with resignation, rather than with surprise or horror, that I received the news this week of Sweden and Denmark introducing border controls for migrants. Those of us volunteering at the camp in Lesbos, Greece, where I'm helping to receive boats of refugees on their arrival in Europe, know we're working against a system which seems willing only to take steps backward.

This is a feature of how the E.U. as a whole has responded to the refugee crisis. Each nation tries to say it isn't their problem. Yet it's this "every country for itself" approach, closing borders and stepping up checks, which is causing this to be a major humanitarian issue. The problem is not going to disappear. These refugees aren't going to shrug their shoulders and decide to go back to a warzone. There's no return journey on the smuggler boats. We need to find a sustainable way to take people in, and eroding the Schengen area or otherwise restricting freedom of movement will not help. We need to find E.U. solidarity—thinking of this as a continent-wide problem, and not one for the frontline like Lesbos.

Sweden, along with Austria and Germany, has tried hard to accept people that need our help. But without other states assisting them, the burden is just too much. Other countries—like the U.K. —have done much less; they've assumed Sweden would solve the problem for them. That's just not acceptable in the E.U., where international law dictates that you have to give people claiming asylum a fair assessment and a chance to start a new life.

A good start would be drastically speeding up the migrant relocation plan agreed last September by the European Commission. E.U. figures released on Monday show that only 272 people have been relocated to willing host nations from Greece or Italy, under a scheme which is eventually supposed to find homes for 160,000 people. That is pathetic.

But in the longer term we need to find ways to absorb numbers fairly across the whole of the E.U.—if we could do that, this wouldn't be such a difficult thing to manage. We need to make sure countries are taking their obligations seriously under the Common European Asylum System, which is supposed to ensure asylum seekers are dealt with fairly; that no matter where they apply, they get the same treatment.

And we need to rethink the Dublin Regulation, an E.U. convention for the treatment of refugees, one clause of which allows states to send people back to the first country they landed in. This places too much burden on states at the edge of the union, like Greece. Models have been developed—for example by Eiko Thielemann of the London School of Economics—which would allow states to distribute migrants across the E.U. based on the capacity of potential host countries. There are a lot of options on the table for altering the Dublin regulation along those lines, but it feels like the will to move forward simply is not there.

The other day, at the camp, I was changing a little girl from Syria out of her wet clothes after she got off a boat, and I got talking to her mother. I mentioned that we needed to get a doctor over to a woman from Afghanistan who was sick, and the mother said "I'm a gynecologist." So I let her go and help out—she was more useful than I was able to be. These are desperate people who need our help but in Europe we have a large and ageing population. We need people to come. What's great about Schengen, and free movement rights in general, is that people can go where they are most productive. We can't stop that.

As told to reporter Josh Lowe @JeyyLowe. Zoe Gardner is communications officer at Asylum Aid, U.K.