The year of the migrant
About 1.5 million asylum seekers will reach the EU in 2016. Will member states join Angela Merkel in her optimism about a united Europe?
Dangerous journey: refugees arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos in October. Potograph: Matej Divizna/Getty
A Syrian child is lifted over a border fence into Turkish territory in June. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty
Migrants are held back in Slovenia in October. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Twenty-fifteen was the year that a million people mired in violence and poverty stopped waiting for help from the rich world. Instead they set off to make a new life here.
Europe was unprepared and largely unwilling to accept them. 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.
Almost every day thousands of people risked their lives trying to reach Europe, just as the stability and freedom they sought here were shaken by recrimination between neighbouring states, terror attacks and a rush to rebuild border fences.
As with the 2008 financial crash and the subsequent travails of Greece and the euro, 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. It is just new for the EU. 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 deteriorated steadily, along with funding for aid groups whose repeated appeals to the world’s governments went unheard.
At the end of 2014 the World Food Programme announced that a crippling funding shortage had forced it to halt provision of food vouchers to Syrian refugees in several Middle Eastern states. The United Nations organisation warned that the move would “endanger the health and safety of these refugees and [potentially] cause further tensions, instability and insecurity in the neighbouring host countries.”
So it proved, and cutbacks to the World Food Programme and other aid organisations continued last year, depriving hundreds of thousands of refugees of assistance in poor host countries where they have few, if any, opportunities to find work.
Fallout from war
Syria’s immediate neighbours 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 prewar population – and driven more than four million abroad.
About two million Syrian refugees now live in Turkey, a million in Lebanon and 650,000 in Jordan, placing a far greater burden on these countries than the million asylum seekers – many of whose applications will ultimately be rejected – who have arrived this year in 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.
And as life in the refugee camps of the Middle East became even tougher, so fighting in Syria ground on and, in some areas, intensified. Russia’s bombing campaign added a further destructive element to the conflict from late September.
Safety in fleeing
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 the year’s final chance 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; about 550,000 migrants landed in Europe, compared with about 70,000 a year earlier.
By this time the path was well trodden and the shadow infrastructure was working smoothly, from the sellers of rubber boats and life jackets 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.
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 journeys, billions of euro gushed into this sector of the black economy last year. It’s 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 or 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 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 Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, 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,” he wrote in a German newspaper in September.
Orbán accused the 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 that they reach. Berlin reversed this decision 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,” Orbán wrote. “If Europe does not return to the path of common sense, it will find itself laid low in a battle for its fate.”
In September and October Orbán’s government erected fences along Hungary’s borders with Serbia and Croatia, sealing the country off to migrants. The move 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. Several other countries, including Germany, have temporarily reintroduced 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 that Orbán encapsulated 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, 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.
French police believe that at least two men involved in the November 13th attacks in Paris, which were claimed by Islamic State and killed 130 people, arrived in the country by travelling among migrants through the Balkans a month earlier.
After the attacks Poland and Bulgaria said that they could no longer accept a refugee-quota plan, and, amid rising support for the far right across Europe, the National Front in France 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 permit onward travel only 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 €3 billion initially and other inducements to do more to stop migrants reaching Greece, to take back failed asylum seekers and to 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 to beef up the EU’s border-protection force.
Top EU officials want this border agency to be far bigger and stronger than the current, woefully ineffective Frontex organisation. They want the agency to have a mandate to deploy to a country’s frontiers in an emergency – without that government’s approval. And they want it to oversee asylum claims and the deportation of failed applicants.
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, about whether “more or less Europe” is required to fix the problem.
Fewer migrants are arriving in Greece now, but the respite will last only a few months: 1.5 million asylum seekers are forecast to reach the EU this year.
Crucial work must be done now to ensure that 2016 is not a 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 to endure sniping from Hungary and elsewhere. Merkel told party colleagues last month 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.
“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.”