The Refugee Crisis in Europe: Responses to Four Important Questions

On December 17, the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that 2015 will break the world record for the number of persons displaced from their homes by conflict or disaster: over 60 million. While Western media has focused its attention on refugees from Afghanistan and Syria—the countries with the largest numbers of asylum seekers to the European Union (EU)—people from countries across the Middle East and Africa are seeking refuge elsewhere. There is increasing debate about how governments in the EU and elsewhere should act concerning refugees. Some EU-member countries, such as Hungary, build walls to keep asylum seekers from entering their borders, which brings to the forefront the question of which state(s) should be responsible for displaced persons. Though what is now known as the “refugee crisis” came to a head in 2015, the crisis is not new, and media coverage of the situation varies from country to country. This event is ongoing and complicated. My research is located in southeastern Europe, and while my topic does not directly involve refugees, in summer 2015 I could not ignore the thousands of people moving through Serbia as I conducted dissertation research. The crisis has clear implications for those living and working in the region, but also for those seeking to understand the definitions that shape actions regarding security, human dignity, and connection to homeland.

Here I offer a compilation of resources that speak to four basic questions you may have about the ongoing refugee crisis.

1. Are displaced people “refugees” or “migrants”?

Street art seen in Belgrade, Serbia July 2015. Photo courtesy of author.

Street art seen in Belgrade, Serbia July 2015. Photo courtesy of author.

In the debate over what to do with the growing number of people seeking a new life in Europe and elsewhere, nations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the media make distinctions between refugees and migrants. Each term is loaded with different assumptions as well as legal and ethical implications. Nations, NGOs, and displaced persons themselves will choose one term over the other in order to speak to particular concerns. As defined by the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, a refugee is a person fleeing his or her home due to a well-founded fear of persecution. The Convention also outlines the legal obligations that nations bear in their handling of refugees. Once a person is confirmed a refugee, the country in which they declare asylum must come to their aid. A migrant, on the other hand, is a person who moves for reasons that are not a part of the definition of refugee. Countries have no obligation to accept migrants under international law. The term refugee is used throughout this piece to acknowledge that many who are seeking asylum do have a well-founded fear of persecution should they return to their home. The BBC, which uses the term “migrant” to describe persons displaced from Syria, has provided a series of useful infographics and maps of the geography of Syrian asylum seekers here.

2. Are refugee camps a sustainable response to the crisis?

Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. <a href="" target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a>/US State.

Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. Wikimedia Commons/US State.

Since 2003, the number of refugees leaving Afghanistan has continued to increase and since 2011, millions of refugees have left Syria. Camps in Lebanon and Turkey continue to house the most refugees. While some refugees pass through the camps after a short time, others have lived in sites for over four years and the conditions in the camps are deteriorating. As refugee numbers increase, even the newest of camps, such as Zaatari in Jordan, cannot keep up with the influx of people. Consistent overcrowding in the camps raises concerns over refugees’ health and safety and recently motivated the World Bank and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to call for a shift in how receiving countries and wealthy countries respond to the crisis.

3. Do refugees rest during winter?

“Refugees Welcome” graphic seen throughout Belgrade, Serbia. Photo courtesy of author.

“Refugees Welcome” graphic seen throughout Belgrade, Serbia. Photo courtesy of author.

Typically, movements of asylum seekers stall during the colder months, yet in late 2015, refugee camps experienced a rise in the number of travelers compared to numbers from previous years. Because the camps are not made for winter weather and travel is increasingly difficult in cold temperatures, concern is mounting about how to help refugees survive the winter. Already in November 2015, cold winds and strong rains contributed to hypothermia and pneumonia among children and elderly refugees. Due to the lack of infrastructure in the camps, accommodating thousands of people is a challenge even in warmer months, but lack of resources—such as electricity—will be even more problematic as temperatures drop in the upcoming months. Further, the refugee camps that most lack resources are located in countries that do not have the financial means and infrastructure to accommodate large numbers of asylum seekers.

4. Why are European countries debating whether to accept refugees?

Refugees crossing from Serbia into Hungary. <a href="" target="_blank"> Wikimedia commons</a>

Refugees crossing from Serbia into Hungary. Wikimedia commons

There is ongoing contention between wealthy European Union (EU) countries and EU border countries (including non-EU countries such as Serbia and EU-member countries such as Greece and Slovenia) about which countries should shoulder the responsibility for refugees. Many do not have the infrastructure to house them. At a recent EU summit, core EU member states told eastern European members that aid to their countries would be cut if they did not accept a certain number of refugees. Many countries in the EU are actually experiencing a decreasing population and could benefit from an influx of young people who could contribute to the economy. Yet the issue was further politicized when a Syrian passport was found next to a perpetrator of the attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015. Though the perpetrators were later found to be EU citizens, the incident fueled concerns that terrorists would enter a country as refugees. The difficulties refugees face in transit have grown because of these security concerns and blatant xenophobic outlooks. Post-November 13, even Christian Syrian refugees find difficulty entering the US. While the Paris attacks did not deter volunteers from aiding refugees, countries such as Macedonia and Serbia are tightening regulations about who can enter. Now, only those fleeing war are allowed to enter those countries, which means that refugees from Iran—for example—will be deported upon arrival.

Challenges evolve

The UNHCR recently addressed political and humanitarian concerns regarding both strengthening border security and protection for refugees. Asylum seekers, aid organizations, and host countries face challenges as the numbers of refugees grows and available funds remain stagnant or decrease. The refugee crisis in Europe has challenged the understanding of what states should do to aid asylum seekers. The international political climate and recent acts of terrorism increase the uncertainty for refugees as they move towards a new life as well as insecurity regarding the role of the EU, its member countries, and non-member countries in aiding the increasing number of displaced persons.

For more personal accounts:
For detailed coverage of what refugees and aid workers face on the route to Europe in winter follow The Guardian‘s account.

The New Yorker’s coverage of Ghaith’s journey from Syria.

Through graphics, The Guardian tells the experience of Syrian artist, Haskos, as he makes a new life for himself and his family.

An aid worker’s account of working with refugees in Calais, France.

A cartographer’s visualization of personal accounts of those involved in the Syrian refugee crisis.

For more about the Syrian war:
The New York Times breaks down the Syrian civil war.

The white helmets are a group of volunteers in Syria who are emergency responders because there is no 911 to call.

To read more about refugee situations in other parts of the world:
There is an outbreak of cholera in the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya.

Uganda now hosts a record number of asylum seekers.

To follow global refugee migration over time:
The Refugee Project uses the data from UNHCR to display change over time in the number of global refugees, where they leave and where they go.

Brian Foo created a song that is determined by the volume of UN refugee data.

Featured image: Syrian children in a refugee camp in Ramtha, Jordan. Wikimedia Commons/UK Department for International Development.

Ruth Trumble is a Ph.D. student in the Geography Department at UW-Madison working with Dr. Robert Kaiser. Her research explores politics of expertise in disaster response and recovery. Currently, her work focuses on the spring 2014 floods in southeastern Europe. She received her B.A. in Geography from Hunter College-CUNY and M.S. in Geography from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Contact.

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