Europe is experiencing one of the most significant influxes of migrants and refugees in its history. Pushed by civil war and terror and pulled by the promise of a better life, hundreds of thousands of people have fled the Middle East and Africa, risking their lives along the way.
The scale of the crisis has put huge pressures on some destination countries, particularly Greece, Austria, and Hungary. At least 350,000 migrants crossed the EU’s borders in January-August 2015, compared with just 280,000 during the whole of 2014.
And that 350,000 figure – an estimate from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – does not include the many who crossed a border undetected.
Among the forces driving people to take such risks are the conflicts raging in Syria and Afghanistan, and human rights abuses in Eritrea. The majority – 62% – of those who have reached Europe by boat so far this year are from those three countries.
There are also people setting out from Libya, Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Kosovo, Iraq, Iran Darfur, Somalia and other countries in the hope of a new life somewhere like Germany, France or the UK.
What routes are people using?
The most direct routes are fraught with danger. More than 2,600 people have drowned in the Mediterranean this year trying to reach Greece or Italy in flimsy dinghies or unsafe fishing boats.
Most of those heading for Greece take the relatively short voyage from Turkey to the islands of Kos, Chios, Lesvos and Samos – often in flimsy rubber dinghies or small wooden boats.
There is virtually no infrastructure on these small Greek islands to cope with the thousands of people arriving, leaving local volunteers providing vital assistance.
Many people travel by boat from Libya to Italy, a longer and more hazardous journey. Survivors often report violence and abuse by people traffickers, who charge thousands of dollars per person for their services. The chaos in Libya has given traffickers freedom to exploit migrants and refugees desperate to reach Europe.
Many attempting to reach Germany and other northern EU countries go via the perilous Western Balkans route, running the gauntlet of brutal people traffickers and robbers.
Faced with a huge influx of people, Hungary has built a controversial 175km (110-mile) razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia. It has also urged EU partners not to send back migrants who have travelled on from Hungary.
Some of the worse tragedies in 2015 include:
- Two boats carrying about 500 migrants sank after leaving Zuwara in Libya on 27 August;
- The bodies of 71 people, believed to be Syrian migrants, were discovered in an abandoned lorry in Austria on 27 August;
- A shipwreck off Italy’s Lampedusa island killed about 800 people on 19 April;
- At least 300 migrants are feared to have drowned after attempting to cross the Mediterranean in rough seas in early February
Where are they going next?
Under an EU rule known as the Dublin regulation, refugees are required to claim asylum in the member state in which they first arrive. But some EU countries, such as Greece, Italy, and Croatia, have been allowing migrants and refugees to pass through to countries where they have families and better prospects.
Germany receives by far the most asylum applications in the EU and says it is expecting 800,000 refugees to arrive this year.
In order to match Germany’s 2015 projection per population, France would need to accept more than 650,000 people and the UK nearly the same amount. But France has pledged to accept just 24,000 and the UK 20,000 over five years.
Between 2,000 and 5,000 migrants are camped around Calais, which is just 1% – 2.5% of the more than 200,000 who have landed in Italy and Greece.
Hundreds of thousands of people are somewhere along the route to Germany, in Hungary, Croatia, Austria, Serbia, and elsewhere.
Are EU countries doing their fair share?
Germany has been critical of France and the UK over the countries’ relatively meagre commitments to take people in and called on all EU members to do more.
Earlier this month, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker set out proposals for 120,000 additional asylum seekers to be distributed among EU nations, with binding quotas.
Mr Juncker’s proposals were criticised by the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Romania.
For years the EU has been struggling to harmonise asylum policy. That is difficult with 28 member states, each with their own police force and judiciary.
Championing the rights of poor migrants is difficult as the economic climate is still gloomy, many Europeans are unemployed and wary of foreign workers, and EU countries are divided over how to share the refugee burden.
More detailed joint rules have been brought in with the Common European Asylum System – but rules are one thing, putting them into practice EU-wide is another challenge.
How do migrants get asylum status in the EU?
They have to satisfy the authorities that they are fleeing persecution and would face harm or even death if sent back to their country of origin.
Under EU rules, an asylum seeker has the right to food, first aid and shelter in a reception centre. They should get an individual assessment of their needs. They may be granted asylum by the authorities at “first instance”. If unsuccessful, they can appeal against the decision in court, and may win.
Asylum seekers are supposed to be granted the right to work within nine months of arrival.
Nearly 104,000 got refugee status in the EU last year, nearly 60,000 subsidiary protection status and just over 20,000 authorisation to stay for humanitarian reasons. (Austria was not included in the data.)