The Refugee Crisis 101

What is the refugee crisis?

The refugee crisis refers to the mass wave of migration that continues to take place across the globe. At the height of the crisis, in 2015, a million refugees arrived in Europe, the largest number of displaced persons since the Second World War. The majority were fleeing war and conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

I know America was involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But what’s happening in Syria?

Since 2011, Syria has been involved in a three-sided civil war that, according to the United Nations, has killed an estimated 400,000 people and displaced 5 million others.

What is life like for children in Syria?

In a word, unimaginable. According to Save the Children, two out of every three Syrian children has lost either a loved one, had their house bombed, or suffered injuries in the war. By the beginning of 2015, half of all Syrian children were no longer in school.

What’s the difference between a refugee and a migrant?

A refugee leaves their native country due to war or the threat of violence. A migrant leaves their native country due to poverty and lack of opportunity. But the terms aren’t always clear-cut—often one condition leads to the other.

How do refugees get to Europe?

Like Ahmed, most refugees try to reach Europe by sea—a dangerous journey that in 2015 cost over 3,000 of them their lives. One of the most upsetting and powerful images that year was a photo of a 3-year-old drowned Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi.

What happened to refugees once they arrived in Europe?

In 2015, refugees faced a grueling journey on the so-called “Black Route” from Greece through Southern and Central Europe to countries with more resources and willingness to welcome them, such as Germany and Sweden. The sheer number of refugees led to overcrowded camps and reception centers, and substandard conditions including inadequate food, shelter, and medical care. Refugees were stranded, separated from their families, abused by border police, and victimized by human traffickers and smugglers.

Were children really travelling alone?

Yes. In 2015, there were 88,300 unaccompanied minors, or children under 18, travelling alone. Many of these children had been traumatized by war or violence and had lost years of their education. Of the 2,650 who applied for asylum in Belgium, 15% were under fourteen years old.

Were Europeans welcoming to the refugees?

Many were, and volunteered their time and skills to help refugees resettle. But not everyone was happy about the influx of mostly Muslim refugees. Some raised legitimate questions about whether the European Union could absorb and integrate a million new citizens. Others were xenophobic; they saw Muslims as dangerous outsiders who wanted to destroy European culture and society. This wariness only increased with the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice, and other cities.

What was it like to be a refugee in Belgium?

Belgium is a small country with a population of just over 11 million (for perspective, there are 8 million people in New York City alone); it is also a relatively young one, an uneasy union of French, Dutch, and German speakers cobbled together in 1830. Because Belgium has no single cultural identity, government does not always operate efficiently—especially on the federal level. This dysfunction was particularly apparent during the refugee crisis. In the summer of 2015, many refugees arrived in Brussels only to end up at the Red Cross camp in Parc Maximilien, a small, urban park across from the Office of Foreigners, where they had to wait on long lines to register and qualify for housing.

Why are there fewer refugees arriving in Europe now?

In March 2016, the European Union made a deal with Turkey that it would take back all refugees arriving in Greece. This agreement stemmed the flow of refugees to Europe but it did not entirely stop it; in addition, critics argue that it has resulted in inhumane conditions for refugees in both Turkey and Greece, where they often remain in limbo.

How has the refugee crisis affected politics in Europe and abroad?

You may have heard about Brexit, the British vote to leave the European Union. Anti-immigrant rhetoric played a large part in that vote. Donald Trump rode a similar nationalistic and anti-immigrant platform to victory. The far-right movement—which also shares the ideals of closed borders and white, Christian nationhood—has gained strength in many European countries. But there have been notable exceptions, such as the 2017 victory of Emmanuel Macron over the anti-immigrant candidate Marine LePen in the French presidential elections.

What can I do to help refugees like Ahmed?

Is there a refugee at your school, place of worship or in your community? Say hello and introduce yourself. Step in and help if they seem confused. Stand up to anyone who teases or bullies them. Include them in activities. Share a meal (but be respectful of dietary religious restrictions). Be encouraging of their English–it’s a hard language! Offer to help them with homework. Do something cross-cultural you can both enjoy—i.e. soccer/football, video games, an action movie. Ask them to teach you a few words of their native language. Ask them about their native country and culture. You won’t just be helping someone, you’ll be making your own world larger, too.

Click here for the story of Albert Jonnart and Ralph Mayer.