Everyone, it seems, has a proposed solution to Europe's tragic "boat people" crisis. Some are breathtakingly bad.

Making a grab for top honors is controversial conservative columnist Katie Hopkins of Britain's The Sun, who proposed greeting migrants, whom she compared to "cockroaches," with gunships.

Mother Teresa she is not. The timing of her sarcasm was particularly unfortunate. It came only two days before a 66-foot boat capsized with more than 800 people believed drowned.

As British comedian Russell Brand observed, Hopkins cannot be casually dismissed as "an irrelevant, vacuous foghorn of hate, blasting vitriol and mindless nonsense." No, she also gives voice to the rage, fears and anguish of many Europeans who fear being overrun by waves of desperate foreigners.

Sadly, the refugees are not simply "illegal immigrants" seeking jobs or welfare, as some wags suspect. The surge in numbers is attributed mostly to asylum seekers. The influx has increased sharply in the last few years with the collapse of stability in Libya and the rise of the Islamic State in Africa and the Middle East.

The numbers of boat people and reported drownings surged after Italy replaced its Mare Nostrum ("Our Sea") search and rescue program in October with a newer program that has saved fewer lives.

Mare Nostrum was ended partly out of concern that its effectiveness unintentionally caused an unintended "pull factor" that encouraged even more migrants to attempt the treacherous crossing. Instead, the influx of refugees has grown anyway — although more slowly than the casualties.

Some 23,556 people have entered Italy without papers by sea since January 1, according to the Italian interior ministry. Although that's a small increase over the 20,800 reported for the same period last year, the numbers who died en route multiplied almost tenfold to 954 — before the latest calamity — according to the International Organization for Migration.

Why the massive increase in deaths? The simplest answer: business is so brisk that the smugglers ran out of safer boats.

Reports that as many as 900 might have died in the April 18 capsize accident put new pressures on the EU to do something that their ancient institutions are not well-equipped to do: Change course.

What is to be done? Europe's tragic refugee crisis raises the same false dilemma that we often hear in America's immigration debate: Should they help asylum seekers or try to seal the borders? There's a better question: Why not try to do both?

That's the espoused goal of the emergency summit meeting that the EU convened in Brussels last week. But their draft agreement looks stronger in its crackdown on human traffickers than aid to refugee resettlement. Even if the funding for search and rescue operations is doubled, as the EU plans, the program would be only about two-thirds as effective as Italy's discontinued Mare Nostrum.

The EU also would work with African and Middle Eastern governments to control migration flows and set up a pilot resettlement program for 5,000 refugees.

But that's only a fraction of the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who are expected. Francois Crepeau, the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, has proposed that we — including the U.S. and his home country of Canada — think bigger.

Crepeau suggests that we learn from our experience with the larger flood of refugees from the former French colonies of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos after communist governments took over in the mid-1970s.

More than 2.5 million Indochinese were resettled, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, most of them in North America and Europe over a 25-year period. Another half-million were repatriated, either voluntarily or involuntarily, back to their home countries.

That's a much larger number than the million new Mediterranean refugees that Crepeau estimates over the next five years. If the burden were evenly distributed, we could resettle asylum seekers and repatriate those who don't qualify in an orderly fashion.

But Europe and, judging by our own immigration stalemate, the United States are experiencing a more economically anxious and even xenophobic moment these days, compared to the days of the Southeast Asia refugee crisis.

Perhaps we should rewrite the Statue of Liberty's poem for these times to something like, "Give me your tired and your poor — unless we're in an economic slump."

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.

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