A Tragedy of Epic Proportions: How to Help the Migrant Crisis in Europe

By Shilpa Nadhan, IOM Washington D.C

A deluge of photos from the past few weeks of refugees and migrants boarding packed trains in Hungary, rushing across borders between Greece and Macedonia and entering the shores of Italy fulminated with an image of a drowned Syrian toddler found on a Turkish beach in Bodrum. This shocking image and the endless stories preceding it are representations of the largest wave of migration in Europe since World War II. Many of the over 350,000 refugees and migrants that have entered Europe this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, are fleeing war, insecurity and political unrest but as the latest stories show, the journey can be just as perilous as the homes these migrants and refugees leave behind. At present, there is no indication that lasting peace and security will be restored in the near-term in countries that include Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya, but there are immediate actions and measures to support and protect the thousands who have attempted to enter into Europe.

Migrant or Refugee?

There has been much debate on whether the major influx of populations entering Europe is a migration or refugee crisis. While an estimated 70-80% of those entering Greece and Italy are Syrian refugees, the boats crossing the Mediterranean include economic migrants from Ethiopia and Mali who are forced to leave due to poverty and lack of resources. Rhetoric can influence policymakers and legislators and the designation of whether someone is a refugee or a migrant may determine whether they are allowed to stay in their destination country or forced to return to their country of origin.

However, irrespective of their classification, most of the refugees and migrants that enter Europe will look for the same opportunities: access to work, access to education for their children, and the opportunity to create a life outside of the war-ravaged homes they left behind. While a percentage of the refugees that enter Europe could potentially receive formal asylum status or be granted a legal pathway for resident status, some portion of those entering will not be recognized as refugees nor will they be guaranteed a safe passage home. Therefore, immediate assistance and the assurance of humane migration should be pledged to all populations entering and transiting through Europe, whether they are migrants or refugees.

Stopping Smugglers

Push factors that include insecurity, poverty, civil war and income disparity show no signs of abating in the Middle East and in certain countries in Africa. Therefore, migration into Europe will likely not dissipate in the upcoming weeks and months. More than 350,000 migrants were detected at the EU’s borders compared to 280,000 detections from 2014. Recognizing that both migrants and refugees will subject themselves to this risky and costly journey, thus creating a growing market for smugglers, it is essential that countries provide the resources required to support and protect those that enter and transit Europe by land and sea.

Blocking migrants from boarding trains, especially when they have a paid ticket, “will push them right into the hands of smugglers,” according to IOM’s Director General William Lacy Swing, creating tragedies like the one on 27 August when 71 migrants were found in an abandoned truck on an Austrian highway. While countries should focus on anti-smuggling and border management efforts, building fences and halting train service will only create greater incentive for those entering Europe to seek the services of smugglers.

Additionally, an increase in search and rescue operations by countries with large coasts, particularly on popular passageways and routes, should be dedicated to prevent the already 2,701 deaths that have occurred on the Mediterranean Sea. The number of deaths at sea rose dramatically from 2014 to 2015 as more and more have tried to cross through the waters.

Taking Action

Many of those watching the events in Europe unfold can feel helpless on what actions to take or how to help. Long-term political solutions to conflict in the Middle East and Libya and a consolidated policy response by EU member states can feel out of reach for regular citizens that want to take immediate action. But, there are a number of ways in which those that seek to help can do so.

First, through donations and cash assistance to those providing humanitarian assistance and protection. Additional funding will support those persons entering the EU with very few resources. There are a number of humanitarian organizations, NGOs and grassroots organizations that are providing immediate assistance to migrants and refugees, both in their countries of origin and in the countries where they have sought refuge, including in Europe.

Second, putting pressure on state and local leaders to build and staff more reception centers, especially in those countries that receive a high number of migrants and refugees, can ensure that they receive adequate protection while their status is being processed. Looking the other way as refugees and migrants cross highways, camp out in stations and run through irregular border crossings as they make their way up to northern Europe, only puts those entering into greater harm.

Third, encouraging governments both in Europe and across the world to take in a larger number of refugees through resettlement programs can also provide legal pathways and viable options for the millions of refugees that have no other choice than to irregularly enter a country. We’ve seen the positive effect that protests from constituents, civil society and the press have had on leadership in the UK which has abandoned its previous position against admitting more migrants and refugees.

While, there is no guarantee that conditions for these migrants and refugees will get any better in the short-term, it is paramount that countries around the world participate in a collective effort to make sure there is not a mounting number of capsized boats and abandoned trucks across Europe and its surrounding shores. For the hundreds of thousands that have made it to Europe and the thousands that will continue to try, this dangerous journey is their only option.