What caused the refugee crisis? You asked Google – here's the answer
First things first: the refugee crisis is not a recent phenomenon. It’s just new to Europe and the west. By the end of 2014, of the world’s displaced people lived in the developed world. Less than 6% of Syrian refugees had applied for asylum in Europe ( out of a then-total of roughly 4 million). When we ask about the causes of a refugee crisis that has been so serious for so long, we’re really asking why Europe has only just woken up to its existence.
Still, it’s been quite a wake-up call. Last year, asylum seekers arrived in Europe by boat, which was itself a record. This year, even that unprecedented figure has been dwarfed, with people landing on the beaches of Greece and, to a lesser extent, Italy. Why?
The first reason is the intransigent nature of the Syrian civil war. The majority of those coming are from Syria, and the Greek and Italian governments. Even if there are questions over the precision of this data, it’s clear that Syrians form the largest proportion of arrivals to Europe. And that’s because they’ve given up hope for their country, whose war shows no sign of ending. People have already weathered four years of brutal conflict; a fifth is too much.
Secondly, there’s no hope for them in the neighbouring countries of the Middle East. At this point, it is now almost impossible for Syrians to gain legal entrance to most other Arab countries. About 4 million people have already managed to get to , and – but Europe is an increasingly attractive option for them since they have no secure legal status in the countries where they now live. The vast majority ; none of them are formally recognised as refugees; and many of their children are not in school. currently in Turkey have fallen outside the education system, according to Turkish officials. To make matters more desperate, has led to cuts to the handouts given to refugee families every month – making the Middle East an increasingly untenable place for them to stay.
The UK trumpets its aid to refugee camps as the answer, but in reality this aid means little when , and most of the rest are not in education or legal employment. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of thousands are now moving to Europe to secure the rights they are entitled to under , but which, however generous the UK has been, they are denied in the Middle East. For four years, many were prepared to put up with this limbo, in the hope that it would only be temporary. Now that it is becoming permanent, they have decided to journey elsewhere to secure their long-term futures.
In 2015, it also became much easier to make this journey. Twelve months ago, most Syrians seemed to think the best way to get to Europe was by sailing from Libya to Italy. Several thousand went from Turkey to Greece, but the footfall was far lower – either because it was a lesser-known route, or people were deterred by the prospect of having to leave the EU again in order to get to western . Once you get to Greece, you still have to walk through the (largely non-EU) Balkans to get to Germany. But if you make it to Italy, you never need leave the EU again.
This summer, however, huge numbers of Syrians discovered the Balkans route – partly through necessity, and partly by design. Visa restrictions in north Africa made it harder to reach the Libyan coast, while the entrenchment of the Libyan civil war made it a less palatable prospect in the first place. Meanwhile people realised the Balkans route was a far cheaper option. And as more people gave it a go, the more word spread on social media about how it worked. And so the cycle continued. Turkey denies it turned a blind eye, but suggests that the country that houses more Syrian exiles than any other was not particularly proactive in stopping their departure.
Germany’s generosity, and the increasing pragmatism of the Balkan countries, were also contributing factors. The former signalled in September that it would accept any Syrian’s asylum application, even if they had previously applied for asylum in other European countries; the announcement spurred a bigger wave of arrivals, since people no longer feared being arrested in Hungary, and forced to claim asylum there. Meanwhile, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia made it much easier for asylum seekers to travel through their territory. In the early summer, people had had to walk most of the way to central Europe. By September, – meaning that a previously very taxing route became comparatively more welcoming to families.
All this meant that the number of people landing in Greece rose from some 43,000 in 2014 to in 2015 (the arrivals in Italy have slightly dropped from 170,000 to ). Not all of them were Syrians, particularly as the year wore on. In Italy, the largest group was . In Greece, an increasing number are from Afghanistan and Iraq, where the respective conflicts are also getting worse. Afghans are also leaving in large numbers from Iran, where many in the large Afghan community lack legal status, and yet have little remaining connection to their motherland.
The Balkan governments also claim that an increasing number of people are joining the flow , such as Morocco or Lebanon. UN data suggests this group still forms of the total, but given , the exact number will be hard to quantify. What is nevertheless clear is that anyone with the money to pay for both a boat ride to Greece, and then for a false Syrian passport, can now proceed comparatively easily towards northern Europe. European migrants from Albania and Kosovo are also able to join the flow in the Balkans, which partly explains why the number of asylum seekers Germany has welcomed this year (nearly 1 million) is in fact larger than the number of people who have landed in Greece and Italy (roughly 900,000).
For all this, Europe’s asylum policies must share much of the blame – but not in the way that most of the continent’s isolationists might think. The crisis has reached Europe not because politicians haven’t defended their own borders (they did, erecting fences in Bulgaria, Greece, Spain and Hungary) but because such defences ultimately don’t work against people who are so desperate to breach them.
Failing to realise this, European governments thought that they could avoid providing safe access and asylum to significant numbers of refugees, since they wrongly assumed that most of those refugees would never dare risk their lives at sea. But Europe underestimated people’s desperation. Once refugees realised that they stood very little chance of gaining asylum in Europe through the formal channels, they simply forced Europe’s hand by making the journey themselves. Consequently, what could have been an orderly process turned instead into a very disorderly one – and one in which virtually anyone can now reach Europe by mingling onboard a boat of Syrians. The problem is intensified by , which encourages asylum seekers to fan chaotically across the continent in search of the countries that they believe will welcome them most warmly.
Meanwhile, by failing to take in a significant number of refugees from Turkey, Europe gave the Turkish government little incentive to protect its own borders better. Brussels promised last week to send £2bn to Ankara, a move that prompted . But the long-term effect remains to be seen – particularly if Turkey (and Jordan and Lebanon) still sees no advantage in giving Syrians the right to work. And they have few reasons to do so unless Europe (and rest of the west) agrees to take in more refugees.
The result is a perfect storm in which refugees have no reason to stay put; Middle Eastern countries have no incentive to prevent them from leaving; and Europe has no means of blocking their path.