Refugees are flocking to the European continent in ever-growing numbers, and Europeans show increasing resistance to accepting them. The governments of Poland and Hungary have announced they will not take in any refugees, and anti-immigration parties have done well in local elections in France and Germany. Those who maintain that "the boat is full"--as the Swiss did in refusing to settle refugees during World War II--make a number of more or less demagogic arguments, such as linking immigration to terror. They also make some valid ones that deserve to be treated seriously. For the refugee crisis will change Europe, perhaps more than anything has changed it since the advent of representative democracy. We need to think bigger.
Even if today's immigrants and their children are not a security risk, critics say, they are an identity threat. And they are correct: The face of the 500 million-strong European Union will unavoidably change if it takes in several million newcomers from different cultures and religions. It's true that people have a right to feel comfortable in their country, and for some, immigration will change that. Refugees, however, are fleeing for their lives. The only way to dissuade them would be to put their lives at risk here, too--for instance, by taking the suggestion of the German right-wing politician Frauke Petry that border guards should shoot illegal migrants. It is mercifully doubtful, however, that a majority of Europeans would support this.
We have legal obligations to refugees as laid out in the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which guarantees the right to temporary asylum for persons who cross our borders with a "well-founded fear" of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political belief. It applies only to political refugees, not economic migrants--a distinction that is important, both politically and philosophically, but in practice hard to adhere to. It is not true, as critics say, that most of the current migrants are seeking economic opportunity rather than fleeing violence: Of the 287,100 first-time asylum applications in the EU in the first quarter of 2016, the EU database Eurostat shows that 102,400 were submitted by Syrians, 35,000 by Iraqis and 34,800 by Afghans, all fleeing war in their countries. Of the five next largest groups, four were from Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria and Eritrea--all places where military conflict and political oppression are major...