The small truck parked by the side of an Austrian highway dripping fluids from the bodies of 71 decomposing refugees is a symbol of the disastrous state of migration policy, not just in Europe, but all over the world.

The men, women and children in the van were probably Syrians, fleeing starvation, bombardment and massacre – only to meet death by asphyxiation at the hands of some vile people smugglers. 

But this is merely the most dramatic of a host of horrific incidents. Already this year, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, more than 300,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean, 200,000 landing in Greece and 100,000 in Italy. At least 2,500 have died or gone missing, most of them drowned in leaky boats.

For all of last year, the comparable figure was 219,000 refugees.

The combination of wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Eritrea, economic unrest, and political oppression have created the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, when millions of people fled or were expelled from their homes.

“‘Fortress Europe’ is steadily transforming into ‘Undertaker Europe’,” according to the Catholic charity Caritas Europa. “The stench of the bodies of the men, women and children found in the truck in Austria impregnates all of us. This cannot continue this way. More controls, security measures and armed forces presence will not stop this. Europe needs to act on a humanitarian approach basis in Europe and in the affected countries,” says its head, Jorge Nuño Mayer.

The magnitude of this human crisis is overwhelming not just the countries where the refugees land, like Greece, Italy, Macedonia and Malta, but also the media. What Miley Cyrus was wearing at the  MTV Video Music Awards was the top-trending story on the New York Times just after the story of the Austrian truck broke. How we – because it is the world’s responsibility, not just  Europe’s – deal with this river of refugees is the ethical test of this generation.

The temptation is to label people “economic refugees”, ie, parasites, and ignore their pleas to be given a chance for a better life. But as Pope Francis – who has become the conscience of Europe on this issue – said last year: “Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity. They are children, women and men who leave or who are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more.”

European leaders are to hold an urgent meeting on September 14 to discuss the emergency. On the agenda is the possibility of a complete overhaul of Europe’s system of handling refugees. At the moment, under the so-called Dublin Regulations, refugees are supposed to apply for asylum in the country through which they entered Europe. This is placing intolerable strains on Greece, Italy, Malta and Macedonia.

On the other hand, other countries, notably Germany, are taking far more than their share. This year Germany will take in 800,000 refugees. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been admirable in her determination to stare down protests. “There can be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people,” she said. “There is no tolerance of those who are not ready to help, where, for legal and humanitarian reasons, help is due.”

Merkel, who has been demonised over her tough stand on the Grexit, is giving real leadership on the migration crisis. Her government’s ten-point plan for “a European asylum, refugee and migration policy that is founded on the principle of solidarity and our shared values of humanity”. Amongst other, it stresses that:

“we cannot stand idly by and watch people risk their lives trying to get to us. The Mediterranean Sea cannot be a mass grave for desperate refugees. Europe’s humanitarian legacy, indeed our European view of humanity, are hanging in the balance.”

Indeed, absorbing migrants and refugees is the supreme test of contemporary politics and responsible citizenship. Balancing fundamental ethical principles against economic and political pressures is a challenge for the visionary statesmen who created the European Union.

And a challenge for the media as well, to educate the public about the facts of migration: that migrants will not destroy the labour market, that migrants will not undermine the welfare system, that migrants will bring innovation and vigour to a sclerotic Europe. 

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” It is a bon mot tossed off by many small-bore politicians. But the one who coined it was Winston Churchill. If Europe’s politicians can weather the gathering storm, this could be their finest hour.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.