I spent part of last summer volunteering in a hostel for underage migrants in the south of Italy. The teenagers there were largely from West Africa, and many of them told me harrowing stories of their journeys across the Sahara and Mediterranean. They were optimistic, resourceful boys and, in their situation, I hope I'd be brave enough to do what they did. But they were not, as we understand the word, refugees.
I have seen refugee columns before, and they tend to be made up disproportionately of women and children. Of the boat-people landed by the coast guard while I was in Italy, more than 80 percent were young men. Young men who, I noticed, took out smartphones when they disembarked and looked for Wi-Fi so as to tell their relatives that they had made it.
Those smartphones are the key to understanding what is going on. A young Gambian with access to the Internet and to credit is able to undertake journeys that his parents, living on subsistence agriculture, could not have contemplated. We are witnessing the beginning of an unprecedented movement of peoples, a Völkerwanderung, made possible by rising wealth and rising aspirations.
Official policy in Europe is based on a misdiagnosis. The migrants are treated as refugees, and there is an implicit assumption that their displacement is somehow our fault. In the weirdly narcissistic tradition of the Left, the West is simultaneously blamed for having intervened in Libya and for not having intervened in Syria. But the lads I was working with in Italy were from countries that we never bombed — except with aid money.
Vast as the numbers are, this is just the start. More than a million settlers — some estimates say a million-and-a-half — entered Germany in 2015. That figure may seem colossal now, but it will look modest in retrospect. More than twice as many people crossed into Greece on each of the 31 days of January 2016 as in the whole of January 2015.
True, some of these people are Syrians who, by any definition, have a claim to sanctuary. But many are not. The European Commission says that 60 percent of those entering the EU illegally are economic migrants rather than refugees; but it has no idea how to return hundreds of thousands of sans-papiers — or where to return them to. Sweden admitted 163,000 entrants last year. Its interior ministry now says that more than half of them are not genuine refugees. How many has it deported? Four thousand.
Imagine that you were living a squalid life in, say, Nigeria. You might not be suffering from persecution, but you are suffering from poverty and misgovernment. You know that, if you can get into Europe, you will almost certainly be allowed to remain, with or without refugee status. Why wouldn't you make the attempt?
Now imagine that you were a criminal or even a terrorist contemplating the journey. Bizarrely, the same calculation applies: You will almost certainly be allowed to stay. An al Qaeda fundraiser who was incarcerated in Britain overturned the deportation order at the end of his sentence by arguing that it would violate his "right to a family life." The daughter-in-law of the jailed Islamist militant Abu Hamza, who may not be named for legal purposes, likewise fought off repatriation following a conviction on grounds that she was the "sole carer" of a child in Britain (the taxpayer, it seems, is the "sole breadwinner").
Britain's situation is nonetheless enviable compared to Europe's. It's true that our judges seem determined, always and everywhere, to overturn deportation orders. But at least we have some control over who comes into our country in the first place. On the Continent, by contrast, the determination to build a united Europe trumped concerns about immigration, anti-terrorism and, for that matter, refugee welfare. Frontiers between EU states — what Brussels calls "internal borders" — were dismantled. In consequence, frontline states began to wave illegal migrants on to the next country, knowing that they would become someone else's responsibility. That policy is the proximate cause of the present crisis.
In desperation, Angela Merkel is now trying to persuade Turkey to take some migrants back from Greece — and holding out the prospect of visa-free travel to the EU for 75 million Turks in exchange. But we're far past the point where such measures will reduce the net inflow of illegal migrants. On 23 June, Britain will have an opportunity to stand aside from the entire EU shambles by voting to leave in a referendum. We won't get another chance.
Dan Hannan is a British Conservative MEP.