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The Year Europe Buckled Under the Biggest Refugee Crisis Since World War II

Thousands drowned and almost a million claimed asylum, while politicians fought bitterly and erected razor wire fences. We look back at the refugee crisis which engulfed Europe in 2015.
Photo by Nicola Zolin/VICE News

In 2015, Europe finally woke up to the world's worst refugee crisis since World War II, as unprecedented numbers of people fleeing conflict and oppression in the Middle East and Africa landed on the continent's shores.

Almost a million asylum applications have been made in Europe this year, compared to 656,000 in 2014. More than a million people arrived in Europe by sea alone, and tens of thousands by land. At least 3,700 adults and children died as over-crowded, substandard boats floundered and sunk.


The majority of asylum applications have come from people fleeing a five year-long civil war in Syria that has also engulfed parts of Iraq. Others have escaped conflict and religious extremism in Afghanistan, failed state institutions and sectarian violence in Somalia, war in Darfur, or a totalitarian regime in Eritrea that imposes military conscription for life.

In the face of a snowballing humanitarian crisis, European politicians came in for heavy criticism over their sluggish and often counterproductive response to the situation, as several countries resisted calls to open their doors and thousands of migrants were left stranded and sleeping rough at borders.

"The initial response was chaotic and uncoordinated and this contributed to making the situation what it was," United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman William Spindler told VICE News. "They blocked women, children, elderly people, and people with disabilities out. They were sleeping out in the rain."

With the European Union (EU) predicting up to three million migrants will attempt to enter Europe over the coming year, the situation could get even worse in 2016.

Refugees and migrants arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo by Nicola Zolin/VICE News

An end to sea rescues

While the migration crisis had been steadily mounting for several years, it was Italy's decision in October 2014 to end Mediterranean Sea rescues that heralded Europe's awakening.

Known as Mare Nostrum, the missions had seen 160,000 people rescued during a single year of operation. Many were rescued off the coast of Libya, where an ongoing civil war has allowed people smugglers to launch dangerously overcrowded vessels towards Europe with impunity.


Politicians and media outlets in Europe pushed the idea that the rescues were encouraging people to embark on the perilous journey, and by November the missions had been replaced by less extensive coastal patrols from European border agency Frontex.

Related: Surge in Migrant Deaths Predicted as Italy Ends Mediterranean Rescue Program

But the months that followed brought a series of well-documented shipwrecks and in April the human toll of ending Mare Nostrum was laid bare when more than 1,200 people drowned in a single weekend.

"That really shifted things," said Gauri van Gulik, Deputy Europe Director at Amnesty International. "We could show that people come no matter what."

The patrols were expanded in May, but many more would drown. UNHCR said this month at least 3,700 migrants and asylum seekers died or went missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean and Aegean seas over the course of the year.

People wait in line at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo by Nicola Zolin/VICE News

Greek islands overwhelmed

With some of Greece's islands sitting just 12 miles from the Turkish coast, they found themselves on the frontline of the crisis, as thousands of migrants risked their lives on rickety boats and rafts to reach the EU.

The island of Lesbos began receiving widespread attention in May after its mayor issued a cry for help. During at least three separate months this year, migrant arrivals have exceeded the island's population of 90,000.

Engulfed in a financial crisis, the government in Athens struggled to deal with the situation, leaving refugees in squalid and under-managed camps.


Watch the VICE News documentary: Europe or Die: Stranded on Kos:

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According to Kirk Day, who has worked in international crisis response for two decades and led an International Rescue Committee (IRC) mission to Lesbos in June, the conditions were the worst he had seen since visiting a refugee camp in war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, then known as Zaire, in 1997.

"People were defecating out in the open, there was not enough tents for everybody, there wasn't really food for everybody and people had no idea about the registration process or where they would go," he told VICE News. "To step back and think you're in Europe and this is the way the situation is was shocking to say the least."

Asylum seekers protesting new border restrictions put in place by several Balkan nations. Photo by Oscar Webb/VICE News

European countries divided

As thousands of refugees flooded from Greece and Turkey along the so-called "Balkan Route" towards Western Europe, transit countries began closing borders and erecting barriers.

In June, Hungary started building a fence along its frontier with Serbia as its government repeatedly declared it would not be taking in migrants or allowing them to travel through the country.

Other countries, including the United Kingdom, Denmark, Czech Republic and Romania expressed hostility towards a migrant resettlement plan, as the EU established a quota of 40,000 migrants and refugees currently in Italy and Greece to be redistributed around the region. Citing the country's lack of mosques, the Slovakian government insisted it could not accommodate Muslims.


Related: Through Hell and Hungary: Riding the Rails With Refugees in Budapest

By early September, Hungary had completed its fence and began rejecting all asylum requests, a move illegal under international law. As disturbances erupted among frustrated migrants stranded at the border, Hungarian security forces used teargas and water cannons to disburse them.

Elsewhere, the likes of Serbia and Croatia began implementing more stringent border controls, while Macedonia, Bulgaria and Slovenia built fences of their own. Oxfam documented systematic violence and extortion of migrants by police in Bulgaria and reports of brutality against refugees by security forces emerged in various other European nations.

Related: Beaten, Robbed, Set Upon by Dogs: Welcome to Europe

In November, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia decided that only people fleeing war in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq would be allowed passage through their country, not "economic migrants" — a policy which the UN said was a violation of international law and which left thousands of people stranded at border crossings. A group of Iranian asylum seekers sewed their lips shut in a hunger strike protest and clashes broke out between migrants and security forces.

Even Austria and Germany, which had stood out as welcoming beacons to the rush of migrants, began tightening borders.

European politicians wrestled with the issue amid a torrent of anti-migrant sentiment fueled by media scare stories and propaganda from far-right groups. In September, the EU resettlement plan expanded to 160,000 people, but aid agencies complained the scheme was being implemented too slowly and the new number was inadequate given the volume of people arriving.


"Those are people already in Europe and [their resettlement] is not even happening," said van Gulik. "[By early December] under 200 people had actually been flown out of Greece into other countries."

A volunteer helps a child recently arrived on Lesbos on a boat carrying migrants. Photo by Nicola Zolin/VICE News

Public support galvanised

In early September a photo of the body of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi lying face down in the surf on a Turkish beach sent shockwaves through the world. The three year-old had perished alongside his mother and older brother while trying to reach the Greek island of Kos in an inflatable boat, just three of the thousands who drowned while attempting the crossing.

Newspapers that had been aggressively stoking anti-migrant sentiment — and have since continued to do so — splashed the image on their front page and public sympathy for migrants and refugees surged.

While European governments clashed on how to respond to the crisis, grassroots efforts flourished under a rush of increased public support. Hundreds of people turned out at train stations in Germany to welcome arriving migrants, while solidarity marches were staged in cities across the region.

Donations flooded into charitable organizations, with a library established in a camp housing 5,000 migrants in the French port city of Calais so overwhelmed by book donations its founder appealed for would-be donors to provide cash for other programs instead.

Related: How Volunteers From All Over the World Have Transformed the Refugee Crisis on Lesbos


By November, SOS Mediterranee, an organization set up in May with the aim of launching its own rescue vessel, had raised enough cash to charter a 500-person capacity ship for the first three months of 2016.

"We don't have a figure on how many people we can possibly rescue, we will just do our best to rescue as many as we can," said Captain Claus Vogel, a merchant seaman who set up the organization and will captain the ship.

Meanwhile, thousands of people moved by the desperate scenes they had seen on the news flooded into Lesbos and Kos, transforming the situation for new arrivals.

Refugees stranded on the border between Greece and Macedonia. Photo by Oscar Webb/VICE News

The Turkey deal

By October, despite ongoing sympathy for the plight of thousands of migrants left stranded at borders as winter closed in, public concern over the influx remained evident.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's popularity dipped in the face of her open arms approach to incoming migrants, and a leaked report from her government suggested Germany would receive almost double the 800,000 asylum requests it had publicly stated it expected in 2015.

By then, Germany had already tightened border controls and following the coordinated terror attacks that left 130 people dead in Paris on November 13, France enforced indefinite border controls. Commentators questioned whether Europe's 26-nation Schengen Area open border agreement was on course to collapse.

In late November, the EU struck a deal with Turkey which it hoped would stem the flow of migrants heading towards Europe by providing up to $3.3 billion in aid to improve the living conditions of the two million refugees living in the country and ramp up border security.


Related: Fortress Europe: The Billion Dollar Machine That Keeps Migrants at Bay

According to Spindler, the UNHCR spokesman, the deal could prove a positive step if it yields an increase in the likes of coastguard patrols to save migrants from stricken vessels and establishes legal avenues for refugees to move on to Europe.

"We don't want to see refugees having to resort to smugglers, to dangerous journeys where many of them have lost their lives," he told VICE News. "But what we also don't want to see is Europe simply passing its obligations and its responsibilities to other countries, to Turkey in this case."

Yet that is precisely what humanitarian organizations have accused the EU of doing.

"The incentivizing of Turkey to make sure that refugees can't leave to come to Europe is almost obscene," said the IRC's Kirk Day, who criticized the deal's encouragement of Turkey to also prevent people entering from Syria in the first place.

"It's hard not to think of it as a bribe," he said.

Meanwhile, in a report released this month, Amnesty International documented abuses and arbitrary detentions of refugees in Turkey, and even the illegal forced repatriation of Syrians back to their war-ravaged country.

"That's what Europe's partner is doing," van Gulik told VICE News. "Europe has a responsibility to make sure that whoever they see as the enforcer of keeping people out of Europe doesn't block all entry into Europe and actually treats them with all the respect they are entitled to."


Volunteers look out for incoming boats on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo by Nicola Zolin/VICE News

What lies ahead?

The EU's Executive Commission has predicted that up to 3 million more refugees and migrants could arrive in Europe by the end of 2016.

According to van Gulik, while the prospect of such an influx and the ongoing paralysis of European decision making is cause for deep concern, deteriorating conditions for refugees in countries that currently house millions, such as Lebanon, Jordan and Ethiopia, will force people to move on, regardless of how difficult it is made to get into Europe.

Nevertheless, Day fears European leaders will continue to focus on restricting entry rather than making it safer and more regulated.

"To be honest, everything has been about limiting the numbers of people who come," he said.

Both van Gulik and Day insist that such an approach only fuels a booming people smuggling economy that endangers lives and leaves migrants open to abuse — as the discovery of 71 dead migrants in the back of a truck in Austria highlighted in August.

Related: 'Those Who Arrive Here Want to Become Ghosts'— Milan's People Smuggling Trade

Following an investigation sparked by that discovery, in September European police association Europol reported up to 30,000 people are involved in smuggling across Europe.

According to Spindler, the proliferation of such unregulated entry into the region undermines arguments for closing borders on security grounds. Instead, he said the EU needs to quickly develop a robust system for regulating entry in a timely manner.

"We would be able to screen and interview people in a better way than what we have at the moment," he said.

But for now, it appears Europe is set to continue on its disjointed path while hoping Turkey can become a more effective buffer.Early figures suggest the deal has not yet had the desired effect.

Follow Charles Parkinson on Twitter: @charlesparkinsn

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