Europe tore down borders after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Then a flood of refugees fleeing wars on its doorstep put some of those fences back up. In 2015, Europe's biggest wave of displaced people since World War II created scenes of desperate families stuck in barbed-wire camps and children drowned trying to reach its shores. The crisis abated after Turkey agreed to block the flow of people. But it exposed deep divisions within the 28-member European Union over how to handle asylum-seekers escaping conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The drama 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 EU's deal with Turkey in March 2016 all but halted what had been an uncontrolled flow of asylum-seekers smuggled onto Greek islands from the Turkish coast in 2015, when more than 1 million migrants arrived in Europe. In 2016 the figure fell to about one-third of that number. More than a third applied for asylum in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy hurt her popularity at home and featured in talks on a coalition government for her fourth term. Turkey still shelters more refugees than any other nation. To cope with the surge in 2015, Germany, Sweden and other countries temporarily reintroduced some border controls, while Hungary, Slovenia and Macedonia erected fences along sections of their borders. Syrians fleeing a six-year civil war made up the largest group of refugees arriving in Greece, joined by Iraqis and Afghans who were also escaping violence. Terror attacks in Europe have hardened resistance to a plan to redistribute asylum-seekers across the bloc. With the eastern route at a relative standstill, attention turned to the rising number of African migrants landing in Italy. They come through a lawless Libya via human-trafficking networks, accounting for the bulk of the 5,082 migrants who died on the Mediterranean Sea in 2016.
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 United Nations estimates that about 18.8 million people in those regions have been displaced by violence. 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 try to press ahead to richer countries.
Politicians from France, Germany and other European countries warn that the challenges posed by Europe's refugees could weaken or even split 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 issue to marshal nationalist support at home. They are feeding on concerns that the refugees, who are mainly 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 pushing for swifter deportation of people who don’t qualify for asylum.
The Reference Shelf
- The International Organization for Migration produces detailed reports on arrivals and deaths.
- Eurostat data on the number of asylum seekers arriving in the EU and where they came from.
- A Bloomberg View editorial on how Europe should share the burden of the migrant crisis, and an opinion piece from Leonid Bershidsky on migrant arrivals in Italy.
- The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR's 2016 report on displaced people.
- 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.
- "The Optician of Lampedusa," a book by Emma Jane Kirby, chronicles a rescue of refugees from the sea.
First published Sept. 11, 2015
To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Leah Harrison at email@example.com