year of the migrant

dan circle Dan McLaughlin
From drownings in the Mediterranean to the mass movement of people across Europe's borders, 2015 was the year the migrant crisis dominated the headlines. Here we look back on that year

This was the year a million people mired in violence and poverty stopped waiting for help from the rich world, and instead set off to make a new life there.
Europe was unprepared and largely unwilling to accept them and, challenged to live up to its lofty ideals, much of the planet’s wealthiest continent responded with fear, anger and efforts to move the new arrivals on or keep them out entirely.
 
Thousands of people risked their lives almost every day to reach Europe, just as the stability and freedom they sought there were shaken by recrimination between neighbouring states, terror attacks, and a rush to rebuild border fences.
 
As with the 2008 financial crash, and subsequent travails of Greece and the euro currency, the refugee crisis found the European Union without much of a plan beyond hoping for the best and, when that failed, expecting Germany to fix the mess.
 
The refugee crisis is not a new phenomenon, however – it is just new for the EU, and the bloc’s leaders were warned that failure to tackle it in the Middle East was to invite it into their own house. They ignored the warnings, and now it’s here.
 
For years refugees have poured into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where life for people fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq steadily deteriorated along with funding for aid groups whose repeated appeals to the world’s governments went unheard.

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Aylan Kurdi, a young Syrian migrant, who drowned in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, lies on the shore in the Turkish coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, September 2nd, 2015. Photograph.Nilufer Demir/DHA/Reuters

In December 2014, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced that a crippling funding shortage had forced it to halt provision of food vouchers to Syrian refugees in several Middle Eastern states.
 
The group warned that the move would “endanger the health and safety of these refugees and will potentially cause further tensions, instability and insecurity in the neighbouring host countries.”
 
So it proved, and cutbacks to WFP and other aid organisations continued in 2015, depriving hundreds of thousands of refugees of much needed assistance in poor host countries where they have few, if any, opportunities to find work.
 
It is Syria’s immediate neighbours that have borne the brunt of the fallout from a four-year war that has killed 250,000 people and displaced about 12 million – half the country’s pre-war population – and driven more than four million abroad.
 
About two million Syrian refugees now live in Turkey, one million in Lebanon and around 650,000 in Jordan, placing a far greater burden on these countries than the one million asylum seekers - many of whose applications will ultimately be rejected - who have arrived this year to the 500-million-strong European Union.
 
Even as the crisis struck Europe, however, wealthy states failed to fulfil cash pledges to aid organisations; in October, for example, the UN refugee agency said it expected to receive less than half the funding it needed for 2015.

migrants

Police escort migrants and asylum seekers as they walk to a refugee centre after crossing the Croatian-Slovenian border near Rigonce on October 24th, 2015. Photograph: Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images

And as life in the Middle East’s refugee camps became even tougher, so fighting in Syria ground on and, in some areas, intensified, with Russia’s bombing campaign adding a further destructive element to the conflict from late September.
 
To many people facing the prospect of winter in a refugee camp in Lebanon or Turkey, or trying to dodge continuing carnage amid the cold ruins of Syria, autumn offered a final chance of the year to flee to Europe in relative safety.
 
The result was a surge of refugees arriving on Greek shores from September to November, just when governments had hoped numbers would dwindle with colder weather in the Mediterranean and on the Balkan route into the continent.
 
Those months were the busiest of the year, and saw some 550,000 migrants land in Europe, compared to about 70,000 a year earlier.
 
The path by this time was well trodden, the shadow infrastructure working smoothly, from the sellers of rubber boats and lifejackets on the Turkish coast, to bus and taxi drivers taking migrants across Serbia, and Facebook pages offering travellers reams of advice and contact details for traffickers.
 
Neither worsening weather nor a rising death toll – about 3,600 people drowned crossing the Mediterranean this year – stopped the migrants, but as Europe dithered, looked away and wrung its hands, criminal groups and profiteers continued to exploit a golden opportunity.

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Source: UNHCR. Situation as of December 17th, 2015

With smugglers charging €1,000 for a place on a boat from Turkey to Greece, and most migrants paying other traffickers and drivers at various points on their journey, it is clear that billions of euros gushed into this sector of the black economy this year – cash that refugees could have used to start a new life in Europe.
 
For months the death toll rose, desperation mounted, exploitation deepened, children’s bodies washed up on beaches, people suffocated in the back of locked trucks and seemingly endless lines of people traipsed north through Balkan fields.
 
By failing to act, to manage the crisis and to engage Balkan states and Turkey in a coherent plan, the EU confirmed for many sceptics that it was unable to handle a crisis or to protect the borders and the interests of all its member nations.
 
It was only a matter of time before national leaders stepped into the breach, and no surprise that Hungary’s Viktor Orban led the way.  “Everything which is now taking place before our eyes threatens to have explosive consequences for the whole of Europe…Europe’s response is madness,” Orban wrote in a German newspaper in September.
 
He accused German chancellor Angela Merkel of triggering a surge of migrants to Europe by making Syrians exempt from the EU’s so-called Dublin rules, which require them to seek asylum in the first EU state they reach – a decision Berlin reversed in late October.
“Irresponsibility is the mark of every European politician who holds out the promise of a better life to immigrants and encourages them to leave everything behind and risk their lives in setting out for Europe,” Orban wrote.
 
“If Europe does not return to the path of common sense, it will find itself laid low in a battle for its fate.”

migrants sun

A dinghy overcrowded with Syrian refugees drifts in the Aegean sea between Turkey and Greece after its motor broke down off the Greek island of Kos on August 11th, 2015. Photograph: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

Orban’s government erected fences along Hungary’s borders with Serbia and Croatia in September and October, sealing the country off to migrants in a move that drew the ire of Germany and top EU officials but praise from some neighbours.
 
Austria, Slovenia and Macedonia have since built fences along stretches of their frontiers to “direct” people to formal checkpoints, and several other countries – including Germany – have temporarily re-introduced controls at their borders to restrict the flow of migrants.
 
Critics warn that such measures could fragment Europe and undo 25 years of efforts to unite the continent, potentially wrecking the EU’s cherished Schengen system of “passport-free” travel between 26 states.
 
Political fragmentation is already well under way, a process encapsulated by Orban when he declared that the refugee crisis “is not European, it’s German. Nobody would like to stay in Hungary…All of them would like to go to Germany.”
 
German-led calls for EU states to take fixed quotas of refugees are opposed by much of central Europe, where Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic voted against such a scheme in September.
 
They were outvoted at the time and a plan to distribute 160,000 refugees around the EU was passed, but Hungary and Slovakia have launched legal action to block it, and subsequent, horrific events brought more states into their camp.

new arrivals

Source: UNHCR. Situation as of December 17th, 2015

French police believe at least two men involved in the November 13th attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people and were claimed by Islamic State, arrived in the country having travelled through the Balkans a month earlier among migrants.
 
After the attacks, Poland and Bulgaria said they could no longer accept a refugee quota plan and, amid rising support for the far right across Europe, France’s National Front took more votes than ever before in hard fought local elections.
 
The Paris carnage prompted Balkan states – without warning or proper preparation - to tighten border controls and only permit onward travel to Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, who have the best chance of securing EU refugee status.
 
The bloodshed also forced the EU response into a higher gear.
 
The bloc has now offered Turkey an initial €3 billion and other inducements to do more to stop migrants reaching Greece, take back failed asylum seekers and grant refugees access to work and schools.
 
The EU also pledged to accelerate the creation of “hot-spot” registration and relocation centres in Greece and Italy, and beef up the EU’s border protection force.

CNN drone footage of war-ravaged Kobane, Syria

Some EU members are likely to bristle at the suggestion of losing sovereign control of their borders, reigniting a debate that accompanies every crisis to hit the bloc, on whether “more or less Europe” is required to fix the problem.
 
Fewer migrants are arriving in Greece now, but the respite will only last a few months, with 1.5 million asylum seekers forecast to reach the EU next year.
 
Crucial work must be done now to ensure 2016 is no repeat of a year when, all along the “Balkan route”, it was volunteers, not governments, who showed the kind of compassion, solidarity and organisation that is expected of Europe.
 
Germany will have to lead, and endure sniping from Hungary and elsewhere, but Merkel told party colleagues in December that she was ready for the struggle, even though “everything we do in Europe is interminably arduous”.
 
“The war in Syria…the spread of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the fact that Libya has no functioning government, the situation in Afghanistan - all that is no longer far away but has come to us,” she said.
 
“We are going to manage this – if there are obstacles to overcome, then we will have to work to overcome them. We are ready to show what we are made of,” Merkel declared, in a speech that prompted a 10-minute standing ovation on December 14th.
 
“The refugee crisis is a historic test for Europe, which I am convinced it will pass…The fight for a unified Europe is worthwhile – of that I am deeply convinced.”