The European migrant crisis has quickly become the largest migration catastrophe since the second World War. The shocking image of drowned three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body on a beach triggered global sympathy for migrants fleeing war and violence in the Middle East and North Africa.

While the majority of the people displaced by the Syrian civil war live in refugee camps in the surrounding Arab countries, many have opted to travel to Europe to seek asylum.

In order to reach Europe from the Middle East, migrants have no choice but to make a perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, usually on dangerously overcrowded boats managed by human traffickers.

The reasons for this dire situation are manifold and complex, involving past conflicts, the recent mass insurrection in the Middle East and North Africa called the Arab Spring, and multiple continuing civil wars in the region.

How it began

In 2010, the citizens of multiple Islamic nations began a series of protests and demonstrations. These protests would later result in royal families and dictators being overthrown in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, all within the space of two years. This caused major protests to break out in almost every other Arab country. The resulting lack of order led to general unrest and, in most cases, frequent and violent changes in leadership.

The Syrian government, led by Russian-backed dictator Bashar al-Assad, refused to step down and instead initiated a five-year civil war between Assad’s regime and several rebel groups, which do not necessarily share the same ideals and fight among each other as often as not.

In parallel to the war in Syria, an expansionist Jihad group called Islamic State (IS) separated from its parent organisation, Al-Qaeda, and began to conquer territory aggressively in neighbouring Iraq, enforcing an extremely strict interpretation of the Qur’an on people in its domain.

When Syria entered its civil war, the IS took the opportunity to claim more territory and currently controls large portions of Syria, including large cities.

The main consequence of the conflict in Syria is that almost five million Syrians have been displaced, adding to the constant flow of refugees coming from other war-torn Arab countries such as Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.

While millions of them are situated in refugee camps in surrounding countries– Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey – the neighbouring Gulf States have refused to take in a single Syrian refugee, an action that has been decried by multiple groups, including Amnesty International and the UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The situation in numbers

There has been a mass migration into Europe in the past few years. Over 280 000 migrants entered Europe in 2014, while in the first eight months of 2015 over 500 000 refugees entered Europe and numbers are set to reach over a million by the end of the year, according to the UNHCR.

The mass movement has captured the attention of the European Union (EU), which does not have adequate infrastructure in place to accommodate such a large, sudden influx of asylum-seekers, as reported by the BBC.

The reaction in Europe

European leaders, now faced with an obligation to accommodate over a million refugees, are currently holding emergency talks to develop a plan of action.

The European reaction to the refugee crisis has been mixed on every level. The German government stated that it would accept any refugees fleeing conflict without hesitation and called for an immediate plan to accommodate refugees across Europe. Hungary has rejected all asylum applications to date and has completed the construction of a fence along the Hungary-Serbia border to keep refugees out, as many of them try to make their way to Germany where they are likely to be granted asylum.

Some member states have insisted that the entire EU has an obligation to take in refugees fleeing conflict, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, while others have openly spoken against accepting any refugees at all. Some states, such as Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, intend to accept only Christian refugees, although this is not supported in the broader EU plan. These eastern European states have come under criticism by the rest of the EU as well as several rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, for a lack of sympathy toward the migrant crisis.

Some of these groups, including the UNHCR, went on to explain that many eastern Europeans experienced a similarly dire situation in the 90s when the Soviet Union collapsed, and were shown hospitality by neighbouring countries as they fled the conflict in their country. Croatia has suffered a similar fate, but its government has adopted a different approach, adapting its public bus services to speed the movement of refugees through Croatia. Many Croatian residents have been welcoming to migrants passing through, offering them food and, in some cases, a cup of tea, according to witness reports by the UNHCR.

On the other hand, many European citizens, especially conservative and far right groups, have expressed concern about the burden such a large-scale migration will place on their economies and social welfare systems. Furthermore, many Europeans fear that terrorist groups will use the resulting chaos to smuggle suicide bombers into Europe, an action which IS has claimed to have attempted. Far right nationalist parties in Europe, which have gained support in recent years, have similar policies opposing immigration, citing arguments that a large influx of multiple cultures, particularly Muslims, would dilute or extinguish traditional Christian European culture and values, even though the greatest number of immigrants being accepted by any EU country, Germany, would amount to 1% of its total population.

Parties such as Germany’s Für Deutschland, France’s Front National, and the Hungarian government, are among such groups.

What will happen now?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is at the forefront of efforts to accommodate immigrants, plans to grant almost one million asylum applications. It is unlikely that many migrants will return to Syria if the conflict is resolved, as most of the country has been left in ruin.

Russia and the US have surprisingly released joint statements that they will prioritise the ending of the Syrian conflict, despite having been deeply divided over who should run the country once the war is over.

The latest UN General Assembly has reached an agreement that the pre-civil war Syrian state will never exist again, and will most likely have to be fractured into several smaller autonomous nations on an ethnic basis, which will be an undesirable and difficult solution. With no possible short-term solution in sight, it is up to the EU to develop a system that will both protect European citizens’ interests and fulfil its humanitarian obligations to the millions of refugees fleeing a disastrous conflict.

Image: Jackie Zhang

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