Europe’s Refugee Crisis

By | Updated Oct 4, 2016 11:21 AM UTC

Europe tore down borders after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Now a flood of refugees fleeing wars on Europe’s doorstep has put fences back up. The continent’s biggest wave of displaced people since World War II has created scenes of desperate families fleeing barbed-wire camps and children drowned on Europe’s shores. The crisis has exposed deep divisions within the 28-member European Union over what some fear could be a never-ending stream of asylum-seekers fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. It has also raised questions about the EU’s commitment to its passport-free zone — one of the bloc’s crowning achievements — as leaders squabbled over balancing moral and legal obligations with anti-immigrant sentiment.

The Situation

The EU struck a deal with Turkey in March that all but halted what had been an uncontrolled flow of asylum seekers smuggled onto Greek islands from the Turkish coast. Immigrants who enter without prior approval are now sent back to Turkey, which shelters more refugees than any other nation. A separate route is taking Africans to Italy via a chaotic Libya, and more than 3,500 migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. To cope with a surge of refugees that began in the summer of 2015, Germany, Sweden and other countries temporarily reintroduced some border controls. Hungary, Slovenia and Macedonia have erected fences along sections of their borders, leaving about 60,000 refugees who had hoped to travel though southeast Europe stranded in Greece in early October. The migrant tide took the total number of arrivals in EU nations to 1.26 million in 2015, double the number the previous year. Syrians fleeing a five-year civil war made up 29 percent of the total, joined by Iraqis and Afghans who were also escaping violence. More than a third of the refugees applied for asylum in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy has hurt her popularity at home. The terror attacks in Paris in November 2015 hardened resistance to a plan to redistribute asylum-seekers across the bloc, leaving most of them in Greece and Italy. Hungary held a referendum in October that served as a protest against the resettlement plan. 

The Background

Once refugees reach the EU, they can generally travel freely. The bloc abolished checks at most internal borders in 1995 and now 26 nations are part of the passport-free Schengen area. Under the EU’s Dublin Convention, refugees are supposed to apply for asylum in the first nation they enter. But many don’t want to remain in an overwhelmed Greece or other Balkan nations, and have tried to press ahead to richer countries. Historically, more people emigrated from Europe than were received, as they headed to the Americas. World War II left as many as 20 million Europeans displaced. During the Cold War, western European countries took in refugees from the Communist East, though those people would often move on. That began to change in the 1990s with the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and the reunification of Germany. The disorderly break-up of the former Yugoslavia forced more than 400,000 people to seek refuge outside its borders. The scale of the current refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, however, is unprecedented in recent times. The UN estimates that about 17.2 million people in those regions have been displaced by violence.

The Argument

Politicians from FranceGermany and other European countries warn that the refugee crisis risks splitting their union. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker points out that Europeans of all nationalities were forced to emigrate at some point in history, including those in eastern Europe now opposed to a resettlement system. Some leaders, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, are using the crisis to marshal nationalist support at home. They are feeding on concerns that the refugees, many of whom are Muslim, could bring crime and terrorism as well as higher unemployment rates to an EU still reeling from a debt crisis. Nationalist parties have surged in polls and elections as their candidates question whether Europe can withstand a persistent influx of refugees. Germany is leading the effort for greater EU oversight and burden-sharing, while also favoring swifter deportation of people who don’t qualify for asylum.


The Reference Shelf

  • Eurostat published data on the number of asylum seekers arriving in the EU in 2015 and where they came from.
  • Bloomberg News Q&A on Europe’s refugee crisis and a BBC guide.
  • The website of Frontex, the EU agency for managing external borders, has maps and statistics about migrant routes.
  • Bloomberg News QuickTakes on political asylum and on the U.K.'s vote to leave the EU.
  • UN Refugee Agency UNHCR 2015 report on displaced people.


First published Sept. 11, 2015

To contact the writers of this QuickTake:
Jonathan Stearns in Brussels at
Jonathan Tirone in Vienna at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Leah Harrison at