The horrific images of refugees dying on European shores seem – finally – to have galvanized public opinion in favor of a shift to protection rather than deterrence. Some leaders seem still to be committed to harsh action – Hungarian Prime Minister Orban’s comment that the arrival of refugees threatened “Europe’s Christian roots” and the decision of Czech officers to use indelible ink to write numbers on the hands of refugees, reminiscent of the Nazi tattooing of Jews and other minorities, being especially odious examples.
But the proverbial tide does seem to have turned. Pro-refugee marches in Vienna, Icelanders demanding that their government let them open their homes to refugees, and English and German football fans displaying banners welcoming refugees to join them at matches seem to have paved the way for the momentous announcement by Austria and Germany that those countries would open their doors to refugees trapped in Hungary. German Chancellor Merkel has emerged as the voice of reason, rightly insisting that the protection of refugees “is morally and legally required” of all state parties to the Refugee Convention.
First, it is important not to simply go back to “business as usual” when the immediate humanitarian emergency ebbs. The current pressures will abate as some states – inside and beyond Europe, as recent French and Argentinian responses attest – will inevitably follow the Austrian and German lead and open their doors to at least some refugees. The impending arrival of winter weather will moreover stymie the ability of many refugees – in particular, the most vulnerable – to travel to safety. While relative calm has historically inclined governments to return to their protectionist ways, the failure to seize this moment to minimize the risk of future protection tragedies would represent a serious ethical lapse.