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The European immigration crisis: how we got here

As urgent as it has become, this crisis has been brewing for some time, the result of long-running disasters, and compounded by disarray in Europe.

A migrant woman reacts as she waits for trains at Keleti station in Budapest, Hungary, on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

The images of thousands migrating across Europe – and one heart-rending photo of a drowned toddler – speak for themselves. To say that the continent is in the throes of an immigration crisis is a major understatement.

As of the end of July, 438,000 people had applied for asylum in the 28 European Union countries. And that doesn’t include the would-be immigrants who defied police to protest outside the main train station in Budapest, marched the highways, or jammed trains heading for Germany. 

Germany alone expects 800,000 asylum seekers this year, a number equal to about 1 percent of its entire population.

As urgent as it has become, this crisis has been brewing for some time. It is a result of long-running disasters, some well known and some largely hidden from view, in a long arc from West Africa, across the Sahel to the Middle East and on to Afghanistan. And it is compounded by disarray in Europe.

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Here is a list, admittedly incomplete and subjective, of five reasons the crisis got to this point, and has taken the shape it has. While none is really a surprise, each tends to get buried by the flood of daily events.

1. Europe doesn’t really have a system for dealing with this.
An organization like the EU that regulates the names of cheeses and sausages might be expected to have well-developed plans to deal with an influx of refugees. Donald Trump aside, no one is likely to completely seal the borders. And despite the popularity and moral authority of Pope Francis, no one is likely to simply throw them open. So there has to be a way to decide who can stay and who can’t.

But as this analysis points out, there is no joint system to track asylum-seekers, or agreement on who should process them and accept asylum applications. There is a bitter dispute about the effort to impose an EU-wide quota, which Germany and France are trying to resurrect this week. Europe also has struggled to choke off the wave of migrants or improve conditions at refugee camps much closer to refugees’ home countries, much less solve the conflicts that are causing many to flee. 

2. Germany is emerging as the good guy.
The images of Germans welcoming arriving refugees at the train station in Munich cheered both asylum-seekers and Germans burdened with the baggage of history. In addition to the destruction caused by German nationalism in the 20th century, the country was portrayed as a heavy just weeks ago for its tough response to the Greek debt crisis. It would be too much to expect all Germans to be enthusiastic about welcoming a flood of refugees from distant lands, but polls show the strong response may have spurred some other European leaders to action. Britain said it would take 20,000 Syrians over the next five years; France, 24,000 people in the next two years. 

Germany’s internal system for dealing with asylum-seekers seems reasonably clear: For starters, asylum-seekers are distributed among the 16 German states according to their population and tax revenue. A decision on their application is made in roughly five months. But Germany is also not a pushover: Officials say nearly half the applicants are from European Balkan countries, and that they are likely to be turned down.

3. One horrific image can make a difference.
When 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi drowned in a failed effort to cross from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos last week, the tenor of the debate changed. Photos of the Syrian toddler’s body, lying in the sand, and then cradled by a Turkish police officer, went viral. Editors asked why politicians weren’t doing more to confront the crisis. But journalists also had to defend themselves from criticism that the images were too graphic to use. The fact is, however, that after the images were published, politicians in a number of countries started to react. It is much harder to ignore a victim who has a name and a story, particularly a child.

4. Europe is just the most visible part of a much bigger story.
The war in Syria has been going on for more than four years. There is no prospect that Islamic State militants, myriad militias or the government will actually win. It’s much more likely that the country will be dominated by warlords for years to come. More than 4 million Syrians have been registered as refugees, and most are not headed to Europe. This chart from the U.N. refugee agency is a useful reminder: nearly 2 million are in Turkey, 1.1 million in Lebanon and more than 600,000 in Jordan. Many have been there for years.

Then, there is Afghanistan, which has been sending refugees both east and west for decades, Somalia and South Sudan, the world’s newest country, which exploded in internal violence shortly after becoming independent. The U.N. reported late last month that 2.6 million people had either fled South Sudan or were displaced within its borders.

5. And the region has its own special hellhole.
It’s called Eritrea. Of the roughly 185,000 asylum seekers officially admitted to the EU last year, Eritreans were second in number only to Syrians. Eritrea, located in the Horn of Africa, has all of 6 million people. But an awful lot of them want out. A damning U.N. report released this summer makes clear why. Few people care to be subjected to opened-ended conscription in conditions approaching slavery. Or forced to report on their friends and families. Or face excruciating forms of torture. If you ever wondered why some people might prefer putting their lives in the hands of a smuggler, and then risk drowning in a leaky, overcrowded boat, you might want to look at these forms of torture and repression used by Eritrean authorities.