Europe’s Refugee Crisis, Explained

Vox Explainer

Today, more than 19 million people have been forced to flee their home countries because of war, persecution, and oppression, and every day an estimated 42,500 more join them. Many, though far from all, of them head for Europe, which is why the crisis there can appear most acute.

There are two layers to this crisis and why it has grown so dire. The first is the sometimes-overlapping web of wars and crises that has forced millions of people from their homes in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere — and that has opened, ever so slightly, a previously closed route to Europe.

The second, and less-discussed, is the increasingly anti-refugee politics in Western and other wealthy countries that are best suited to take them. People in those countries, insecure and fearful over the effects of immigration, preoccupied with vague but long-held ideas about national identity, are driving nativist, populist politics, and thus policies that contribute to the crisis.

The result is that at a time when more people than ever need help, wealthy countries are more reluctant to help them — putting thousands or millions of innocent refugee families in peril.

Syria map animated Sept.15

The biggest driver of the crisis by far is Syria. Four million people, nearly a fifth of Syria’s population, have fled the country since the war began in 2011.

It’s not hard to understand why Syrians are fleeing. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has targeted civilians ruthlessly, including with chemical weapons and barrel bombs; ISIS has subjected Syrians to murder, torture, crucifixion, sexual slavery, and other appalling atrocities; and other groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra have tortured and killed Syrians as well.

Most of these Syrian refugees have ended up in underfunded and crowded camps in neighboring countries. But seeing little future for their families in the camps, and knowing they may never be able to return home, many have decided to set out on the dangerous and uncertain journey for a better life in Europe.

But it’s not just Syria. Older, longer-running conflicts have displaced, for instance, 1.1 million refugees from Somalia and 2.59 million from Afghanistan.

Political and sectarian repression in other countries has contributed as well. Many families in Eritrea, for example, are fleeing the dictatorship there that is sometimes called Africa’s own North Korea. In Myanmar, a Muslim minority group known as the Rohingya has endured brutal violence and ethnic cleansing, sometimes with the tacit support of the Myanmar government or even at the hands of government forces themselves. Fleeing Rohingya made headlines in recent months after thousands becamestranded at sea, marooned in dangerous boats because neighboring countries refused to take them in.

Meanwhile, in Central America, gang violence and lawlessness made thousands of families so desperate for their children’s safety that they sent those children on a perilous journey north toward what they hoped would be safety in the United States. Many of their futures remain uncertain.

To be sure, there are also many economic migrants who travel to wealthy countries in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. But their presence doesn’t erase the desperate need of refugees who make the difficult decision to flee with their families, risking drowning in the Mediterranean or dying on the roads because the terrifying dangers of the journey are still preferable to what they face if they stay behind.

As you can see, these crises sending refugees fleeing for safety are not all necessarily related, and indeed many are totally distinct. But the global refugee crisis is more than just a collection of these individual humanitarian disasters. There are a few common elements tying much of them together. One of them is the Arab Spring, the wave of anti-government protests that hit the Middle East in 2011.

How the Arab Spring jump-started the refugee crisis


For years, the EU kept refugees out of sight and out of mind by paying Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s government to intercept and turn back migrants that were heading for Europe.

Qaddafi was something like Europe’s bouncer, helping to keep the potentially significant number of African migrants and refugees from ever reaching the continent. His methods were terrible: Libya imprisoned migrants in camps where rape and torture were widespread. But Europe was happy to have someone else worrying about the problem.

But then came the Arab Spring. In 2011, Libyans rose up against Qaddafi, Europe and the US eventually intervened, and with Qaddafi’s regime gone, Libya collapsed into chaos. Though the journey through Libya remained dangerous, it was also suddenly open, making it easier for both refugees and economic migrants from across Africa to use the country’s shores as a launching pad for the cross-Mediterranean journey to Europe.

At the same time, the Arab Spring also helped lead to Syria’s war, and to conflict in Yemen, and eventually to the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Of course, none of this caused the exodus of refugees from, say, Afghanistan or Myanmar, but the Arab Spring was perhaps the largest single spark of the ongoing, global refugee crisis.

Why so many refugees began heading for Europe and other rich countries

Syrians displaced around the Middle East(European Commission)
Syria’s neighbors are hosting the majority of Syrian refugees, often in camps that lack sufficient food, shelter, or other resources.

As the crisis has grown, and particularly as more refugees have left camps in places such as Jordan or Myanmar and set out for wealthier countries, the crisis has also become far more difficult to ignore.

It is not merely a matter of swelling numbers of people in far-off refugee camps — although that is happening too, and the camps are in crisis — but of desperate families reaching the shores and borders of Europe.

There are a few reasons that refugees have become more willing to brave the journey to Europe (or to Australia, in the case of some Southeast Asian refugees; or to the US, in the case of Central American refugees). The first is that the crises in their home countries have simply become too dangerous to tolerate. Another is that while many initially fled into camps, those camps have become dangerous as well, and offer little future for families who may spend years there.

This summer, the European Union, United States, and Kuwait respectively pledged $1.2 billion, $507 million, and $500 million for aid to refugees. That’s good, but it’s still far short of the $5.5 billion in aid that the UN says is needed for these refugees, as well as another $2.9 billion for displaced Syrians within Syria. As a result, the camps are often crowded and undersupplied, which leaves the people who live in them cold, hungry, and subject to the ravages of disease.

In the meantime, other crises have opened previously closed routes, for example through Libya. And as the numbers of these refugees have grown, so have the often exploitative smuggling networks that lead the journeys, often for exorbitantly high fees, in dangerous conditions, and with little regard for the safety of their charges.


And so hundreds of thousands of refugees have made their way to Europe, with most crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats and rubber dinghies. Those boats are barely seaworthy, so tragedies are frequent: UNHCR estimates that 2,500 people have died just this summer while attempting to make the crossing.

That influx to wealthy countries makes the crisis seem, for those countries, far more immediate and extreme. When children die in Syria, that rarely grabs the developed world’s attention — sadly, and unjustly, it has come to seem routine. But when they die in the back of trucks in Austria, or in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Greece, that feels much harder to ignore.

Rich countries try to discourage refugees — making their journey more dangerous

Rich countries, in their efforts to deter refugees from reaching their shores, have actively avoided policies that would make the journeys less dangerous, and thus contributed to the danger. Last fall, for instance, the UK cut funding for the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operations that saved an estimated 150,000 people in one year, saying the rescues encouraged more people to make the crossing. The Italian government ended the operation in November. Since then, it has been replaced by the EU’s far more limited Frontex program, which only patrols within 30 miles of the border, and does not have a search-and-rescue mission.

The result, predictably, has been deadly: An estimated 2,500 people have already died so far this summer. This is not an accident. It is the result of European policy meant to keep out refugees.

Within Europe, countries are also trying to restrict refugees from getting to or staying within their borders. Hungary has erected a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia in an effort to prevent refugees from crossing into Europe over land. It also announced new laws that will make it a crime to damage the fence or cross it, and will make illegal border crossing punishable by up to three years in prison. The Hungarian government also shut down train service to Germany in an apparent effort to discourage refugees from using Hungary as a transit country on their way to seek asylum there.

And Austria has now introduced checks along its internal border with the rest of Europe to search for refugees and other immigrants being smuggled into the country. Although the government claims that the checks are a humanitarian measure intended to prevent tragedies like the recent deaths of 71 people who suffocated in the back of a smuggler’s truck, critics have charged that they constitute a violation of the EU’s open-border policy.

Australia, meanwhile, has gone to great lengths to prevent so-called “boat people” from reaching its shores, including imprisoning them in abusive detention centers on remote pacific islands, and shipping them off to Cambodia.

In North America, the US has stepped up enforcement efforts after last year’s child migrant crisis, including sending aid to Central American countries in exchange for efforts to keep children from making the journey to the United States. As with Europe and with other right countries, the whole idea is to keep refugees from showing up in the first place — even though these efforts never solve, or often even address, the underlying crises that cause the refugees in the first place.

Europe (with one big exception) refuses to take responsibility

For years, the world’s wealthiest countries have, for the most part, steadfastly refused to accept more than the barest possible minimum of the world’s refugees. As a result, now that the crisis is growing out of control, there is no plan in place to handle it, and no agreement on how the burdens should be shared.

The European Union is particularly ill-suited to this. In theory, the EU is supposed to handle refugees collectively, to act sort of like a unified country in the way that, say, the US collectively takes responsibility for refugees who show up in Arizona, rather than making Arizona carry the entire burden. But in practice, most EU member states don’t want to take their fair share, and EU rules mean they don’t technically have to. As a result, the majority of incoming refugees are stuck in the same two or three countries, which quickly became overwhelmed. That is bad for those countries and bad for the refugees.

Part of how this happens is a European Union rule called the Dublin Regulation, which requires refugees to stay in the first European country they arrive in until their asylum claims are processed. In theory, this rule is a way to prevent applicants from “orbiting” the EU by filing application after application in different countries until one of them finally gets approved. But in practice, it’s a rule that has trapped thousands of refugees in Greece and Italy, simply because those countries are the easiest ones to reach by boat across the Mediterranean. And it’s a rule that many EU countries exploit in order to push much of the burden of handling refugees onto these two countries.

The results have been disastrous. Doctors Without Borders’ Stathis Kyroussis described the current refugee crisis in Greece as the worst he has ever seen: “I have worked in many refugee camps before, in Yemen, Malawi, and Angola. But here on the island of Kos, this is the first time in my life that I have seen people so totally abandoned.” According to Human Rights Watch, the Greek reception centers, where arriving refugees are held, lack sufficient food and health care, and are so severely unsanitary and chronically overcrowded that the conditions in them may amount to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international law.

European countries could, and in theory should, accept many of these refugees into their own borders. This would be much better for the refugees, and also healthier for the EU, whose ideals of burden-sharing have been strained nearly to the breaking point by the migrant and refugee influx. But most EU nations are instead acting selfishly to keep refugees out.

Germany, to its credit, recently agreed to suspend application of the Dublin Regulation for Syrian refugees, who will now be permitted to apply for asylum directly in Germany. But the rest of Europe has largely failed to follow Germany’s moral leadership. And while there are now small signs that might be changing — on Friday the UK announced vague plans to accept “thousands” of Syrian refugees — there is as yet no unified EU response, and thus Europe’s status quo remains unfriendly to refugees.

The United States, for its part, has largely ignored the crisis. Thus far it has resettled only 1,434 Syrian refugees, and has pledged to take only a few thousand more. The entire US refugee resettlement program is capped at 70,000 refugees globally — a cap that has remained the same for years, despite the growing crisis.


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