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4 things the US could learn from how Europe is handling the Mediterranean migrant crisis

After as many as 800 migrants drowned last week when their ship capsized off the coast of Libya, Europe has been under a tremendous amount of public pressure to address a humanitarian crisis that looks like it will only get worse. The problem for the EU — just like the problem that faced the US last year as it dealt with its own migrant crisis from the Northern Triangle of Central America — is that "responding" to the deaths of people trying to get to your country could mean one or more of several totally different things.

It could mean trying to keep them from wanting to come to Europe to begin with — either by improving conditions in their home countries, or by treating migrants who arrive poorly to discourage others from trying. It could mean accepting that people will want to come, and making it easier to do so safely and legally. Or it could mean accepting that, at least in the short run, a lot of people are going to try to make a very dangerous journey, and responding by trying to make sure that at least they don't all die.

Europe's response before last week (and America's last year) was entirely in the first category. But after a one-day summit on Thursday, it looks like Europe has finally recognized that if it's going to keep thousands of people from dying in the Mediterranean this year, it's going to need to rescue them. The European Council is tripling the size of its border operation (which isn't designed to rescue boats but does respond to distress calls), essentially bringing it back up to the scale of the Mare Nostrum operation the Italian government ended last year. Mare Nostrum was credited with saving 100,000 lives; it couldn't get to every boat, but its track record was much better than the European response up to this point has been.

lampedusa migrant on stretcher

Furthermore, national governments are donating some boats of their own for rescue — including the United Kingdom, which explicitly said last year that it wasn't going to help rescue migrants because more might be encouraged to come.

This doesn't mean crisis in the Mediterranean is averted. It remains to be seen how well this operation will work, and of course the problem won't really be solved as long as people are being smuggled and trafficked in unseaworthy boats en masse to begin with. But it's so much better than it could have been, and officials in other countries — like, say, the US — could learn some important lessons about migration policy. Here are four:

Don't skip straight to the "long-term solutions"

European officials have often taken the line that the only permanent solution to the migrant crisis is to stop people from wanting to make such a dangerous journey to begin with. As I wrote earlier this week, "That's a very politically advantageous line for the EU to take: it makes it clear that they're not planning to respond by taking more people in, but turns it into something that sounds like a humane, long-term solution. But the problem with long-term solutions is that it takes a while for them to work. Stopping people from wanting to come in the future is one thing, but it doesn't do much for the 600,000 or so migrants currently waiting in Libya for their turn."

This was also how the US addressed the Central American migrant crisis last summer. Admittedly, the US didn't have to deal with 600,000 people in the middle of the journey. But there was still a cost to skipping to the long-term solution. The US treated tens of thousands of families who had already arrived — many of whom have legitimate humanitarian claims — as collateral damage, locking them up in detention centers as a warning to people still in Central America. And it swiftly sent many adults back to mortal peril.

familes deported to Guatemala

Much of the EU summit last week did focus on long-term solutions, and the EU, like the US, is treating deterrence as the ultimate long-term goal. Europe is drawing up a plan for a military operation that would (it hopes) disrupt smuggling networks. The military action might have to get UN approval, which means it probably couldn't happen (Russia would be expected to veto). Even if it did, it's going to be extremely tough to destroy smuggling networks by using the military. And it's going to be even harder to do it without making life a lot more dangerous in the very countries Europe wants to get people to stay in.

But thankfully, Europe isn't putting all its eggs in the military basket. The commitment to search-and-rescue means lives will be saved even if attempts to solve the problem in the long term fail.

Sometimes you should do things that are politically unpopular

The countries that are stepping up to help the EU aren't exactly following the polls. As the German Marshall Fund found in a 2014 survey (via the Pew Research Center), majorities of British, French, and German citizens are worried about migration from outside the EU. And during a UK election season that has even the center-left Labour Party promising to limit migration, this isn't exactly a low-risk time to promise more support. But Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to do more to keep migrants from dying at sea — while making it very clear that they'll be dropped off in Italy, not in the UK.

European migrants

When the data contradicts your theories about why people migrate, admit it and move on

When the Italian government ended Mare Nostrum last fall and the EU replaced it with its own, much smaller operation, several officials said that the Italian rescue mission had encouraged more migrants to come. So having a smaller operation, they thought, would end up saving lives because fewer people would cross to begin with.

That is the opposite of what happened. In previous years, peak season for Mediterranean migration had ended in September; last fall, it stayed high through the fall and winter, leading Frontex to say, "2014 could be remembered as the year that people-smuggling by sea truly became a year-round business." At the summit, European leaders acknowledged that they had been wrong — which is why they were willing to expand the EU's mission.

The argument that "this will encourage more people to come!" is extremely common in debates over any immigration policy, even those that would only apply to people who have been in the country for a long time. It's often treated as an unknowable hypothetical: we can't enact this policy because more people could plausibly come as a result. But often, there's actual data one way or the other. In this case, the data showing that migration increased after the "pull factor" ended was enough to demonstrate to policymakers that it wasn't a pull factor at all.

Save everyone first, sort out who should stay later

European migrants detained

(Ali Balli/Anadolu Agency/Getty)

It's definitely true that not every migrant coming over the Mediterranean has a legitimate reason to stay in Europe under European and international law. But some of them do. This is what experts call a "mixed flow," and it makes it super-difficult for a receiving country to sort out who should stay and who should be deported.

Again, focusing on "deterrence" — keeping people from coming to begin with — allows countries to pretend this dilemma doesn't exist. And because policymakers are often so sure that if they say anything that sounds "soft" on immigration, more people will come, they often err on the side of being overly harsh — saying that most, or all, of the people who come should be deported. (This is what Hillary Clinton famously said during last summer's Central American migrant crisis, for example.)

The EU is trying to deport migrants more quickly if they don't qualify for asylum. (It's also subjecting all immigrants to a bit of security theater by forcing everyone who arrives in Europe to be fingerprinted.) But it isn't using the fact that some migrants aren't coming legally as a reason not to save their ships.