Geographies in Depth

Europe’s refugee crisis: what you need to know

A migrant walks towards Gevgelija in Macedonia after crossing Greece's border, Macedonia, August 22, 2015.

The EU is struggling to handle the unprecedented (and growing) flow of migrants to its shores Image: REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

Rosamond Hutt
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More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015 – the largest movement of people the continent has seen since the end of the Second World War.

The massive influx – more than 130,000 people have reached Europe by sea since the start of 2016 – has provoked bitter divisions over the EU’s open borders and how to resettle the newcomers.


Read on for rolling news updates or scroll further down for a full explainer on Europe’s refugee crisis.

Latest news

- Migrants are being taken in boats from Greece to Turkey as part of a new EU deal to deport failed asylum seekers. Almost 6,000 migrants are awaiting deportation in detention centres on the Greek islands.

- EU leaders have reached a deal with Turkey aimed at solving the migration crisis. The deal includes Turkey taking back all migrants who enter Greece illegally, including Syrians. And in return, the EU is to take in Syrian refugees directly from Turkey, increase aid for Syrians there, accelerate Turkey's EU membership process and introduce early visa-free travel for Turks.

Where are they coming from?

Syrians make up around 40% of the people seeking asylum in Europe, according to the UNHCR. Significant numbers are also arriving from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Nigeria. The chart below is a breakdown of where non-Syrian migrants arriving in Europe come from.

While the conflict in Syria continues to be the biggest driver of migration, people are also fleeing other violence and persecution hotspots such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea. In addition, poverty and a lack of jobs are prompting many to leave their countries and look for new lives elsewhere.

This presents a major policy challenge for European leaders, as US Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted: “The flood of desperate migrants has now spread well beyond the Middle East. Half of them now come from places other than Syria. Think about that – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan,“ he told the Munich Security Conference.

“So the burden of Europe, which is already facing a complex economic, political and social strain, is now even more intense.”

Where are they going?

While Germany received the most applications for asylum in 2015, Hungary had the highest number per capita in Europe. This was 1,799 per 100,000 of the local population, with Sweden close behind with 1,667. Germany, the EU’s most populous nation, had 587.

How do they get to Europe?

The majority of migrants arrived by sea, although some made overland journeys, mainly via Turkey and Albania.

Figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) show that more than a million migrants arrived by sea in 2015, compared with around 34,000 by land. These figures do not include those who made their way in undetected.

In 2016, more than 130,000 migrants have reached Europe by sea, already exceeding the total number of sea arrivals in the first five months of 2015. Most of that number who head for Greece do so via the Aegean Sea from Turkey. Others make their way across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy.

Rough seas, particularly in winter, combined with overloading poor quality boats and a shortage of lifesaving equipment make the sea routes extremely perilous. The IOM estimates that more than 3,770 migrants died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2015.

What is Europe doing about it?

The EU’s 28 governments are divided over how to deal with the crisis. A number of countries have responded with temporary border controls, sparking concerns over the future of Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone.

In September, the EU agreed to reduce pressure on frontline countries that receive the majority of migrants by agreeing to share the burden.

But promises to spread 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy across the EU have not been kept – only around 600 people have been relocated so far. Thousands remain stranded in northern Greece after neighbouring Macedonia, supported by Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia, closed its border.

Meanwhile, the EU has begun its plan to limit the numbers arriving in Europe with Greece deporting the first groups of asylum seekers to Turkey.

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