Earlier this year, 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi's body washed up on a beach on Turkey's Bodrum Peninsula, another victim of a journey that has claimed thousands of lives in Europe this year and continues to claim more every week. The photo of the boy's body was seen all over the world, an image that is still hard to look away from or forget, one that's forced the world to confront the refugee crisis with compassion.
A few days later, a thousand people set off on foot for Austria from a train station in Budapest after the Hungarian government stopped trains from leaving for western Europe.
— The Somalia News (@TheSomaliaNews) September 6, 2015
And the week before, Austrian authorities made the gruesome discovery that 71 people had suffocated to death in a truck, their bodies left to decompose to the point of being unrecognizable.
According to the International Organization for Migration, it's a crisis that's driving the largest movement of people the world has seen since World War II, stretching from Africa to the Middle East and up through Europe. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' latest report tells us that there were more than 60 million displaced people in the world as of last year, and that includes 16.7 million refugees across the globe who left their home countries in search of a safer place to live.
Where are refugees arriving in Europe coming from?
More than 836,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea in 2015 so far, according to UNHCR, with 85% of them coming from the world's top 10 refugee-producing countries. That suggests that most of them are seeking asylum in nations like Germany, England, and Sweden, which are seen as having better prospects for refugees to get support and build lives away from the countries they're fleeing.
More than four million people in the past four years are fleeing relentless civil war in Syria, according to the U.N., often first making their way to refugee camps in surrounding countries: Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, or Iraq.
Resources and welcome are in short supply in these stopover countries. It's often difficult to lodge claims of asylum because embassies are hard to access and assistance in refugee camps is stretched thin: The U.N. says it's lacking $2.85 billion worth of funds to provide basic supplies to refugees on the ground. Sarah Cliffe, director of NYU's Center on International Cooperation, said this lack of resources is driving many people to Europe, because Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt can't support them.
"I think that it would make a real difference to have a stronger approach on how to integrate the people where they find themselves after fleeing Syria, and that means not leaving Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey alone to share the burden," she said. "Because of course those are not countries that are at war, but they’re still developing countries so it’s very difficult for them to bear the financial and physical costs of having the largest percentage of the refugees."
What's happening in Syria that all these people are fleeing?
The civil war in Syria began with protests and an uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad in March 2011. Assad used the army to crack down on dissent, and opposition groups eventually armed themselves and began to fight back. In the years since, sectarian divisions and the rise of ISIS in the region have lead to the situation becoming more fragmented and violent.
The exact death toll is hard to confirm as the situation becomes more complicated and harder for observers on the ground. Estimates from Syrian human rights groups range from 123,000 (from the Violations Documentations Center) to 320,000 (from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights). The last U.N. estimate of the death toll, published in August 2014, was 191,369, but the organization said the number is indicative, if unreliable.
Close to eight million people have been internally displaced, and more than four million have fled the country in search of refuge—together, that's about the population of Illinois. In 2010, before the war began, Syria had a population of about 20 million, according to the World Bank.
Last week, Assad made public comments about the refugee crisis for the first time. He blamed foreign governments "supporting terrorists" for the exodus of people from his country, denying that his government bears any responsibility.
"Those refugees left Syria because of the terrorism," he said in a broadcast on Russian television. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have consistently said since 2011 that the regime is persecuting its own people, even allegedly using barrel bombs and chemical weapons against civilians, and have repeatedly called for Assad to be brought before a war crimes tribunal.
Why do people make these dangerous journeys to begin with, instead of just applying for asylum from their home countries before they leave?
Asylum seekers are often fleeing conditions which put their lives immediately at risk (like civil war in Syria), or make their living conditions unbearable. As just one example in Syria, the use of barrel bombs has reduced many towns to rubble, and survivors of the attacks have very little left to live on.
"Refugees go through processes of asylum but they have to get first to a place where they can actually make an asylum application," said NYU's Sarah Cliffe. "Since most countries don’t make it easy to do that in their embassies overseas, and of course in places like Syria they don’t have such offices, that means they physically have to get to the countries they want to reach."
Syrians leaving their war-torn country definitely fall into the category of asylum seekers or refugees. But calling them refugees, not migrants, has been controversial.
What's the difference between an asylum seeker, a refugee, and a migrant? And why does it matter what we call them?
- A refugee, according to the U.N. and written in the 1951 Refugee Convention, is "someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion."
- An asylum seeker is someone who has left their home country to seek refuge, but has not yet been officially granted refugee status by the country they're seeking refuge in.
- A migrant is someone who moves countries, not because they were forced out or fear for their life or freedom, but to improve their lives. They are not covered in the Refugee Convention because they can safely and freely return to their home countries if they choose to, according to the UNHCR.
- In the U.S., the word "asylee" refers to someone who requests refugee status when they are already in the U.S., while a "refugee" is someone who was granted refugee status before arriving in the U.S.
There are real consequences to getting "refugee" and "migrant" confused, the UNHCR tells us. Refugees are afforded specific legal protections that migrants aren't, and mixing up the terms can undermine the international system of asylum that's set up specifically to help some of the world's most vulnerable populations.
Getting on rickety boats and then trekking across a continent with a bare minimum of their possessions, most of the Syrians, Afghanis, Eritreans, and Iraqis arriving in Europe are asylum seekers, and should be granted shelter as refugees.
So what are the common routes refugees are taking to get to Western Europe?
As conditions worsen in the refugee camps in north Africa and the Middle East, there are a few well-trodden routes that asylum seekers are embarking on with the promise of stability and shelter in Western Europe in their sights.
The majority of migrants are taking two main routes: crossing the Mediterranean Sea and trekking the Western Balkans. Thousands of people have died on both routes, but the flow of people arriving shows no sign of slowing down.
This is the path that has claimed more than 3,500 lives this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, a non-profit tracking the crisis using on-the-ground staff and government reports. The IOM says this is the minimum number of deaths; there are probably many thousands more. People are crossing the Mediterranean Sea from northern Africa to Spain, Italy, and Greece.
Italy has received more than 142,000 refugees via this route this year, the International Organization for Migration reports, and for Greece, the number is more than 685,000. The deadliest path in this region is called the Central Mediterranean route, which takes asylum seekers from Libya usually up to Italy or Malta. The journey takes somewhere between 2–6 days (if all goes well), and can cost $500-$2,000, according to a report prepared for the U.N. by a consulting agency in 2013.
Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy, and his family were on the journey to Greece when their boat sank off the coast of Turkey, leaving them struggling for their lives in the ocean. The family started out for Europe from Turkey, where they had been living after leaving their Syrian hometown of Kobane. The town has been at the center of conflicts between ISIS and the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.
With the death toll on this route continuing to grow, asylum seekers are looking for alternative paths, which have their own perils.
The Western Balkans
The 71 asylum seekers found suffocated to death in a truck in Austria in August started out on this journey via the Western Balkan nations. They likely began their trips in their respective countries (likely Syria and Afghanistan), getting to Greece by sea and/or air for part of the journey, and finally were on their way to western Europe through the Balkans when their truck was allegedly abandoned by the men who were driving them across borders. A spot in an overcrowded truck, often without any ventilation, can cost $335-$450 to travel just between Hungary and Austria, Der Spiegel reports.
The latest available data on the number of people taking the route, from the European Union's border coordination agency Frontex, only covers the first half of this year. But according to the European Association for the Defense of Human Rights, the situation has not slowed. They say that more than 1,000 asylum seekers have been reaching countries in the Western Balkans every day since the beginning of June.
As stories of death and hardship continue to emerge from the Mediterranean and the Balkans, some asylum seekers are resorting to what could be an even more treacherous route. The Arctic Route involves traveling up through Russia, north of the Arctic Circle, and into a Norwegian town called Kirkenes. The Guardian reports that around 20 Syrians are crossing into Norway this way every month. Norway has received a relatively small number of asylum requests this year.
Are people also moving within Europe, or are all asylum seekers coming from other continents?
The vast majority of people on these routes are coming from outside Europe, but there are some internal European migrants traveling to Austria, Germany, and other western European countries from unstable areas, like the Ukrainian border with Russia and countries which have been through civil wars in the last two decades.
On the Western Balkans route there were 23,260 asylum seekers from Kosovo in the first half of the year, according to Frontex, the third-highest number of people behind Afghanis and Syrians. There may also be people from the Western Balkans themselves joining the exodus to northern Europe, looking for jobs and economic stability.
Why does Germany seem like good choice for people seeking asylum?
Germany has Europe's largest economy, and despite a spate of neo-Nazi attacks on housing for refugees, their immigration policies are turning out to be among the more welcoming for those seeking asylum. Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there's no limit to the number of refugees her country could handle. Germany is expecting up to 800,000 new asylum seekers by the end of the year. In the first of half of the year, they had 218,221 applications for asylum, with the number of people who arrived probably higher (and has certainly increased since June).
Aside from Germany having a better economy, it's also more appealing because the German government has been open to immigrants coming to work in the country, partly because of a skilled worker shortage in recent years.
"So there’s been a sort of positive narrative on immigration in Germany prior to this point, that’s developed over the past couple of years," said Susan Fratzke, a policy analyst and program coordinator at the Migration Policy Institute. "I think that has in some ways contributed to the desire of people to submit their claims in Germany versus, say, in Hungary or Denmark, who have both run these anti-immigration publicity campaigns to actively discourage people from coming. The narrative is very different."
Where in Europe are people applying for asylum?
In July 2014, 12,921 Syrians applied for asylum in Europe, according to the UNHCR. A year later, there were more than twice as many applications—32,471 people applied in July 2015 alone.
The total number of Syrians who applied for asylum in Europe between the start of the conflict (April 2011) and July this year was 348,540.
That's a comparatively small number over four and a half years, given the total number of Syrian refugees in the world, but about a third of those (126,315 people) applied just this year.
Nearly half of those refugees applied for asylum in Germany or Sweden.
While there are a lot of people moving through Europe, there are areas where asylum seekers are getting stuck waiting to cross borders. In the Greek village of Idomeni, thousands waited to cross the border to Macedonia and were subject to stun grenades and intimidation by Macedonian border police until the government opened the borders a few weeks ago, according to Amnesty International. In some parts of Europe, like in the French town of Calais, across the Channel from England, asylum seekers have been stuck for months hoping to cross to the U.K., most of them having arrived in France before the wider refugee crisis across Europe reached its peak.
What is happening to asylum seekers in Calais now? What is the U.K. government doing about it?
The impromptu refugee camp growing on the outskirts of the French town of Calais has more than 3,000 asylum seekers, many of whom are trying to cross the English Channel to the U.K., with the prospect of a relatively strong economy and a universally useful language spurring them on. In just one day in late July, there were around 2,000 attempts made to cross the Channel. On Monday, Agence France Presse reported that French riot police drove 400 people, mainly Syrians, out of their makeshift shelters just outside the larger sprawl where most asylum seekers are camped out.
But as the U.K.'s stance on accepting refugees remains fixed, some in Calais have resigned themselves to not crossing over. The UNHCR says that so far this year 1,000 people have filed for asylum in Calais. After international and internal criticism, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said in September that 20,000 more Syrian refugees will be accepted by 2020.
What about the United States? What are we doing?
The U.S. has taken in just 1,300 Syrian refugees since the conflict began. The U.N. is calling on America to take more, a request that was finally heard by the administration last week, with the White House announcing that America will accept 10,000 Syrians by the end of next year, on top of around 1,500 before the end of September. Secretary of State John Kerry also confirmed Sunday that the U.S. will increase the total number of refugees we take in from across the world from 70,000 this year, to 85,000 in 2016, and 100,000 in 2017, which is still fewer than what former government officials and human rights advocates have been pushing for. Since attacks on Paris last Friday, claimed by terrorist group ISIS, some politicians have called for America to reject all Syrian refugees, or only accept Syrian Christians. President Obama has re-affirmed that the U.S. will not change its refugee policies because of the attacks.
What are the other governments in Europe doing about all this?
Europe–and U.N. relief agencies–are struggling to deal with the numbers of people crossing borders every day. European governments are changing their policies weekly to adapt to the crisis and to public opinion in their respective countries.
In the aftermath of the truck incident, Austria announced it would allow asylum seekers to pass through its borders without checking documents or forcing them to register, understanding that many were looking for a way out of Hungary, which has been harsh in its reaction to refugees. But a few days later, the Austrian government said that was only a temporary emergency measure, and regular restrictions would be back in place soon.
Meanwhile, Hungary is finishing up a fence they've built on their border with Serbia to keep asylum seekers out, and they've vowed to arrest anyone crossing their borders. Their response to the crisis has been widely condemned by human rights groups and other European Union governments. The country has seen a particularly large number of arrivals because it marks the beginning of an inter-connected group of nations in what's called the Schengen zone, where travel documents are usually not checked between countries.
Last weekend, Germany announced it is temporarily exiting the Schengen open borders zone, overwhelmed by people arriving in the country by train, especially to Munich. Most recently, Croatian authorities said they are considering closing their border with Serbia after 8,000 asylum seekers crossed it in one day.
In September, the European Union announced recommendations for an E.U.-wide policy on how to handle the situation. The proposal would mean that countries in the E.U. have a mandatory quota of refugees they must accept, based on their population and economic capacity. Overall, it would mean the E.U. accepting around 160,000 refugees. Interior ministers approved the plan in a majority vote, despite continued opposition from some Eastern European countries. The E.U. has the power to impose the plan on all member countries with a majority vote, but leaders were hoping to come to an agreement instead. It is rare, the BBC writes, for the E.U. to resort to a majority vote instead of unanimous decision.
Asylum seekers from countries like Syria and Eritrea, where many refugees are fleeing, will be included in this quota. It would also mean that asylum seekers arriving in Greece, Italy, and Spain would be more quickly relocated and settled in other countries with more capacity to take them.
At the same time, the policy includes a measure that would allow governments to demand more proof of refugee status from people coming from a list of "safe" countries, mostly Western Balkans nations, which aren't recognized as producing many refugees. This measure, Fratzke from the Migration Policy Institute says, is designed specifically to target internal European migrants.
The quota was proposed by the E.U. Commission in May, but didn't pass; its possible success now could be chalked up to the situation continuing to get worse, and public sentiment in some countries turning in favor of refugees. But Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania, which resisted the plan to start with, still voted against it. Poland broke with other Eastern European nations and voted in favor of the plan.
Fratzke said there are also some suggestions from within the E.U. aimed at providing more aid to the countries surrounding Syria to help improve the situation for refugees there. "For example the German development minister a few weeks back made the proposal that the E.U. should consider granting 10 billion Euros in aid to the Syria region to try to improve conditions there," she said. "That proposal wasn’t really taken up by anyone or the European Commission but there are ideas like that that are being floated."
While coming up with coherent E.U. policies is important, the world can't avoid dealing with the roots of the crisis much longer. The Syrian civil war is unavoidably at the center of the refugee crisis. Fratzke and other policy experts say the situation in Syria must be dealt with if the exodus of war victims is to stop.
What about the U.N.? Does it have any power to address the situation in Syria?
The United Nations has not intervened directly to deal with the conflict in Syria because the permanent members of its Security Council—China, France, Russia, the U.K. .and the U.S.—can't agree on whether the current Syrian government should be involved in resolving the conflict or just ousted. That's mostly because Russia and China are both allies of Assad's and have allegedly provided weapons to his forces. But the situation has also deteriorated in last two years because of the emergence of terrorist group ISIS, which has killed thousands and led to widespread displacement in the region.
"The war in Syria has become desperately complex, and the West is focusing on the threat from the Islamic State. But the core problem remains President Assad's refusal to quit power," said Richard Gowan, fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "Assad's forces are still committing the majority of atrocities against civilians, and his allies Russia and Iran are not willing to let him fall. Russia is even boosting its military presence in Syria to protect him. There is a real risk that the war will intensify further, adding to the number of refugees and ratcheting up the crisis to a new level."
Gowan also said the crisis could be tackled if three things were to happen: a boost in funding for the U.N.'s humanitarian work in the region, a bargain with Russia over Assad's future to try to lower the level of violence, and to increase military efforts against ISIS. "But every one of these steps is politically difficult in practice, let alone all three," he said.
In September Russia did finally agree to allow a U.N. investigation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, a report which is likely to find Assad's regime at fault, and might lead to war crimes charges against him down the road.
Sarah Cliffe of NYU's Center on International Cooperation is hopeful that the images of despair that the world is seeing now, including the photo of Aylan Kurdi's body, will force world governments to seriously address the crisis.
"I think the images do make a difference because it’s what makes everyone see these as fellow human beings…It can also in the end make it easier and more desirable for governments to respond. So if they start to feel that that popular pressure is building up, makes it more likely," she said.
This post will update as the situation develops and new figures become available.