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What You Need to Know About Europe's Migrant Crisis

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have arrived in the EU, with no end in sight. How is Europe responding?
September 15, 2015, 12:00am
Refugees who were rescued in July by an Irish naval vessel in the Mediterranean. Photo via Irish Defence Forces Flickr account

Unless you've in some kind of fugue state, chances are you've heard something by now about the crisis brought on by hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn Middle Eastern countries—Syria in particular—streaming into Europe. A photo of a Syrian toddler who drowned while trying to reach Greece went viral earlier this month as a heartbreaking symbol of a spiraling humanitarian disaster, sparking a lot of goodwill toward migrants, but there has also been a nativist backlash, and nations seem to be constantly reassessing how to respond to the waves of people entering Europe.


Over the weekend, Germany imposed new border controls to slow the flow of migrants into its territory, and Austria, Slovakia, and the Netherlands followed suit Monday, as the New York Times reported.

To those of us lost in the chaos of inscrutable numbers and fast-moving headlines, it's tough to get the perspective needed to understand what sorts of big moves are needed. In the name of untangling this knotty affair, here's everything you need to know about Europe's unfolding migration crisis.

Exactly how Big Is This Crisis?

Recent numbers suggest that at least 381,000 migrants have made it into the EU zone since January of this year. Most pass through Greece via Turkey and go on to the Balkans and Hungary; others travel by way of the central Mediterranean, starting in Libya and getting stuck in Italy. But no matter their route, these people are generally trying to move north to Austria, Germany, and Sweden—places with high standards of living and relatively welcoming asylum status policies.

Related: Calling Bullshit on the Anti-Refugee Memes Flooding the Internet

Authorities don't believe this migration acceleration is slowing down any time soon. The UN estimates 400,000 migrants will have crossed the Mediterranean by the end of the year, and that another 450,000 could follow in 2016.

Why Are Americans Only Talking About This Now?

Migration to Europe has been on the rise since at least 2012, and that's just been one element of a growing global migration problem. The number of displaced peoples throughout the world has tripled over the last decade, and within the last few months alone, we've seen a good deal of press coverage on the migration of Rohingya Muslims out of Bangladesh and Burma, and the deaths of hundreds of migrants bound for Europe on makeshift boats departing from Libya. But some of the new attention stems from the images and stories coming out of migrant camps and routes in recent weeks.

Especially as winter approaches, there is growing concern about the wellbeing of tens of thousands of people living on meager rations in rickety tents, sometimes on overcrowded and relatively isolated islands, as they await a change in their status or the opportunity to move to a new nation.


Hungary's Prime Minister—the far-right Viktor Orban—has also drawn a deal of attention to the migrant crisis through his racially-tinged rhetoric. Disparaging migrants as a Muslim threat to Europe's "Christian roots," building a 110-mile fence on the Serbian border, threatening to build another on the Croatian border as well, and preparing his army for potential police action against migrants has made Orban a polarizing figure, to say the least.

Why Are the Camps Getting So Overcrowded?

The reason so many migrants are getting stuck in Greece, Hungary, and Italy centers around the EU's 1990 Dublin Rules, which mandate that migrants register for asylum in the first European Union country they reach but offer little guidance about who should qualify for asylum and refugee status in the EU generally. Meanwhile, conditions in Syria and its surrounding nations have increased the number of people willing to gamble on coming to these camps and staking out an asylum claim. Orban has called for the sending of $3.4 billion in aid to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan in order to improve conditions in their camps—and stop or at least slow down the flood of refugees fleeing those camps.

Are All the Refugees Syrians?

An incredible 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced, and a further 4.1 million have fled to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey since the start of the nation's civil war in 2011—collectively more than half of the nation's 23 million people. But only about 349,000 of them have sought asylum in Europe since April 2011.

Many of the remainder of the people seeking refuge in Europe are also fleeing violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Ukraine, Yemen, and other countries. However a fair chunk of migrants are fleeing poverty, including those who actually come from within Europe—in the first six months of 2015, around 45 percent of asylum applications in Germany came from Balkan nations.

Why Hasn't Europe Solved This Problem Already?

Despite the occasionally overheated rhetoric, migrants account for less than 1 percent of the EU's population. And major figures like Pope Francis have been calling on the EU for months to do the humane thing and accept more refugees into its borders.

But nations like Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain have all opposed plans to take in migrants. Their main argument seems to be that distributing migrants around the EU and rewriting the Dublin Rules will make it too easy and attractive for migrants to come to Europe. Orban seems especially convinced (in public, at any rate) that "tens of millions" of migrants are ready to flood his borders.

How Can Any Plan Succeed in That Environment?

Thanks perhaps in part to more attention to the crisis in the mainstream media, countries around the world have started to soften their stances on refugee intake. Australia has agreed to accept more refugees from Syria, and the US said it will do the same next year.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has been encouraging the EU to take in an additional 160,000 refugees, and there is some support for this idea; Spain is changing its tune, while even the Czech Republic and Poland have expressed willingness to take more refugees so long as quotas are voluntary rather than mandatory. Juncker has been selling pro-migrant policies as bringing potential young blood to revitalize aging economies. He's also called for more standards when it comes to granting asylum.


Not everyone is onboard, however. The UK is among countries that are home to vocal anti-immigrant political movements; Germany's recent moves may lead Belgium and France to reconsider the EU's open border policy—something that's been in the air since Italy started allowing migrants to move north freely in 2011.

Is There Any Solution to This Mess?

Taking in, better distributing, and caring for migrants will go a long way to alleviating the crises. Renewing funding commitments to refugee facilities closer to Syria could make the dangerous trip to Europe less attractive—of course, that wouldn't solve the problems of the refugees who are already on the continent or are on their way there. But the larger issue is the instability and conflict that has driven millions of people from their homes in Syria and elsewhere to undertaken an incredibly arduous, hazardous journey to the relative safety of Europe. Barring the ability to wave a magic wand and achieve world peace and prosperity, there are few options—that's why Juncker and others want to see systematic changes and candid conversations about the way Europe chooses who gets in, how, and where they go from the border. But as Juncker recently said, in an address quoted recently in the New York Times:

"As long as there is war in Syria and terror in Libya, the refugee crisis will not simply go away."

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