A variety of factors, including a spike in fighting and sagging international aid, are fueling the surge of asylum seekers in Europe.
GENEVA — Migrants have for years taken death-defying trips across the Mediterranean to reach Europe, but the flow has hit record proportions this year, notably with an influx of Syrians, Afghans and Eritreans fleeing war, repression or poverty back home.
The push has by some accounts topped 432,000 people this year. While some are economic migrants, most are Syrians fleeing carnage at home. Traveling mostly into Greece by way of the Aegean Sea from Turkey, more than 175,000 have flooded into Europe this year, more than twice the number in all of last year, the International Organization for Migration says.
A variety of factors, including a spike in fighting and sagging international aid, are fueling the surge. Here’s a look at major causes:
Welcome wearing thin
Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have absorbed the lion’s share of Syrians fleeing their homeland, with roughly 4 million amassed in refugee camps and communities in those countries. The countries may be hitting their saturation point, experts say. Tensions and clashes are on the rise, and the fraying welcome has contributed to the decision of many asylum-seekers to move to Europe.
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Metin Corabatir, who runs a research center on refugee issues in Turkey, noted how his country rolled out an “open-door” for refugees but never instituted a thorough “integration strategy.” Of the 1.9 million Syrians who have fled to Turkey, about 300,000 are in refugee camps, while the vast majority have taken up life in towns and cities along the border.
“The whole asylum system is based on being temporary,” he said. “In the absence of any integration scheme, these people are becoming increasingly hopeless, their situation has been deteriorating.”
Doris Carrion, a researcher with the Chatham House think tank in London, noted that Lebanon’s government in recent months has blocked the United Nations refugee agency from registering new refugees in the country, which prevents them from receiving aid there. If caught, those unregistered face the risk of deportation to Syria.
Authorities in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are also becoming less tolerant of Syrians holding down odd jobs, such as working on farms or in shops.
“Local governments and local residents are getting less and less patient with the refugees that are in their country,” Carrion said. “So that makes more and more Syrians think ‘OK, I have no way of providing for myself here.’ I’ll risk whatever might happen to me in the journey to Europe.”
Intensifying war in Syria
A recent spike in brutal warfare inside Syria has combined with the deteriorating conditions in neighboring countries to spur Syrians to flee. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says some 7.6 million people have been displaced by fighting inside Syria between President Bashar Assad’s forces and rebel groups, including the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida affiliate Nusra Front. It says electricity is only available 2 to 4 hours a day in most places, and many Syrians face food and water shortages.
Shrinking aid, dwindling savings
Slumping international aid is contributing to despair in the refugee camps, spurring them on to Europe. The Syria Refugee and Resilience program has received only 37 percent of needed funds for its $4.5 billion appeal this year, said UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming. The U.N.’s World Food Program warned last month that it would be cutting its food distribution because of funding shortages. Last week, it started specifying by how much: It has halved assistance to 1.3 million Syrians in the region, and says the reduction in the value of vouchers to buy food means most refugees are living on 50 cents a day.
Authorities and aid groups are less able and willing to provide refugees with education, health care and basic infrastructure.
Some Syrians in derelict refugee camps or cramped apartments across the border are willing to tough it out a few years, but they increasingly realize they can’t live like that forever. And many are quickly running out of savings.
New routes, new methods
People fleeing war zones make up the majority of people passing through Greece. Tens of thousands are also pouring into Italy — with a mishmash of nationalities led by Eritreans, Nigerians, Somalis, Sudanese and Syrians, according to the International Organization for Migration.
While the main Mediterranean migrant flows of recent years have been from North Africa to Italy and Spain, the recent surge has occurred between the Turkish coast and nearby Greek islands. From there, asylum seekers have traveled via mainland Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria — what is known as the Western Balkans route.
The European border-control agency Frontex, in a published review of migration trends during the first quarter of this year, says the migration flows of last year through the Western Balkans area involved mostly Kosovars heading northward. That changed this year, when Turkey began impeding the use of cargo ships that ferried many Syrians and others to Italy; the Turkish action drove those migrants to try the shorter crossing in the Aegean Sea.
Western diplomats in Geneva and UNHCR officials note a recent phenomenon in which many Syrians have bypassed giant refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. They cross the border into Lebanon — plane ticket in hand — and fly straight from Beirut to Turkey. From there, they head to the Mediterranean coast to make the short journey to Greece.