The European Union's failure to provide desperate asylum seekers with legal routes leaves them with no option but to risk their lives on smugglers' boats.
Nearly half the population in Syria has been uprooted from their homes. Some 4 million Syrians have fled to seek refuge outside the country's borders. But those trapped inside have nowhere to run.
With the crisis pressing on and countries across the Middle East closing their doors to Syrian refugees, it is high time the EU restructured its policy toward asylum seekers.
Egypt and Jordan first closed their borders in 2013, while Lebanon imposed strict visa conditions at the start of this year. Although Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, the country only reopened its borders last week during the battle for Tell Abyad, a city on the Turkish-Syrian border.
Those who managed to flee have struggled to acquire legal status in neighboring countries. Some have been forced to look northward for protection, but Europe has resettled less than 2% of Syrian refugees. Committed to a policy of border deterrence, the EU has pushed thousands to their death.
In the first four and a half months of 2015 alone, more than 1,800 people may have drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe. This amounts to 18 times more than the number of people who lost their lives over the same period in 2014.
Xenophobia vs. sound economics
The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights states that those escaping persecution have the right to seek protection in Europe. Nonetheless, few, if any, legal routes exist for people to get there.
Amnesty International has urged the EU to resettle 10% of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees by the end of 2016. Though this would be a positive step, a higher resettlement quota that includes all EU member states would offer wider protection.
But this approach will never be adopted so long as some European states view such agreements as an infringement on their sovereignty.
For now, distributing more work and student visas, along with Amnesty's request, would be a vital step. Not only would a young labor force acquire international protection, but as new taxpayers, they would help sustain Europe's welfare programs as the continent's population ages.
After decades of toiling under the corruption of the Assad family's regime, more Syrians are earning a living by becoming entrepreneurs. Enabling them to study would stimulate Europe's struggling economies and ensure an educated class after the war concludes, if they chose to return.
Unfortunately, these measures are unlikely to gain traction as long as widespread xenophobia undermines sound economics. As far-right leaders gain wider support by framing refugees as a "threat to national security," those from the left have stopped advocating migrants' rights in order to guarantee votes.
Beyond Dublin 3
Embarking from the shores of Libya, Turkey and Egypt, refugees are placed in overcrowded fishing boats and given coordinates and cellphones to aid their journey.
Those lucky enough to make it as far as the coast of Europe face the next barrier. According to the Dublin 3 Regulation — the cornerstone of the EU's asylum system — migrants must submit their asylum claims in the first EU country they enter. That state is then responsible for deciding their status, even if asylum seekers try to enter another EU country.
If the Dublin system really worked, southern European states would see the highest number of asylum applications. A look at the figures demonstrates the opposite. In 2014, 70% of asylum claims were lodged in just five of the 28 EU countries: None of them are on the Mediterranean coast.
This is in large part due to the Syrian crisis. As the number of people fleeing bloodshed rises exponentially, returning people to their first country of entry has become practically impossible. A more effective procedure would allow refugees to choose where they would like to seek protection. This approach would quickly reunite families and eliminate the demand for human smugglers.
Rights without routes
Politicians fear that this approach would attract refugees to countries that have the highest living standards, but Dublin 3 already produces these imbalances without any of the benefits.
As the Syrian crisis spirals deeper into chaos, Europe remains more divided than ever. Hungary has announced plans to build a fence along its border with Serbia, while Bulgaria has enforced a brutal approach to curb irregular migration from Turkey.
Despite the UNHCR's appeal to resettle a quota of Syrians from southern Europe to Scandinavia, few measures have been taken to address the root of the crisis as legal routes have yet to materialize.
If people have the fundamental right to claim asylum in Europe, then legal routes have to be provided for them to do so. Otherwise, more people will drown and more families will be torn apart.