Why Europe’s refugee crisis reached a tipping point

The world could no longer ignore what’s been called the worst refugee crisis since World War II when a Syrian toddler's body washed ashore last week.

Pictures of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying on a Turkish beach drew attention to the human cost of the crisis where statistics had failed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that about 330,000 people have died since the brutal Syrian civil war began in March 2011.

An estimated 12.2 million people need humanitarian assistance in Syria, 7.6 million have been displaced internally, and four million have fled the country altogether, according to the United States Agency for International Development.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that among the 4,088,099 registered Syrian refugees who have left for neighboring countries, 1,938,999 settled in Turkey, 1,113,941 are in Lebanon, 629,266 are in Jordan and 249,463 are in Iraq. There are also 132,375 in Egypt and 24,055 in other North African countries.

The UNHCR has been warning that conditions for these refugees, many of whom live in camps, will keep deteriorating without more international support.

Syrian refugee Sarah Ali, 53, center, holds her grandson Jood, 2 months, while she and other members of her family rest on the ground near a makeshift camp for asylum seekers, after crossing the Serbian-Hungarian border near Roszke, southern Hungary, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015. (Photo: Muhammed Muheisen/AP)

"This worst humanitarian crisis of our era should be galvanizing a global outcry of support, but instead help is dwindling,” U.N. high commissioner for refugees António Guterres said in a statement. “With humanitarian appeals systematically underfunded, there just isn't enough aid to meet the colossal needs — nor enough development support to the hosting countries creaking under the strain of so many refugees.”

Sherif Elsayed-Ali, deputy director of global issues at Amnesty International, says few have heeded the U.N.’s warning that these countries could not absorb the crisis without it reaching a tipping point.

“This was entirely predictable and many people warned that this would become a crisis if the EU — and the international community more generally — didn't act,” Elsayed-Ali said in an interview with Yahoo News. “But they did very little, with a few notable exceptions like Germany and Sweden.”

The nearly two million Syrian refugees in Turkey do not necessarily see it as a permanent home because they do not have the right to work.

Furthermore, as The Guardian reported, Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is viewed as sympathetic to the refugees' plight, suffered recent setbacks at the polls. This has made many Syrians uneasy about their future in the country.

"More and more Syrians are losing hope. Thousands have tried to reach Europe by taking often deadly land or sea routes after paying their life savings to smugglers,” a UNHCR statement reads. “Many have not made it. Those who do, face rising hostility as refugees are conflated with security concerns in a climate of rising panic.”

So far this year, more than 300,000 refugees and migrants have sailed across the Mediterranean Sea: nearly 200,000 landing in Greece and 110,000 in Italy, according to UNHCR. This is a drastic increase over the 219,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean for the whole of last year.

Late last month, UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming said 2,500 refugees and migrants have died trying to make the journey this year. For all of last year, 3,500 people died or were reported missing.

The top three countries of origin for people arriving in Europe by sea are Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. A majority of westerners are more familiar with the conflicts in the first two nations than the third.

The UN Human Rights Council has cited Eritrea, a northeast African country bordered by Sudan in the west, for “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations.”

The difference between refugees and migrants

There has been some confusion in the media over whether these people are refugees or migrants — but the distinction is important and these terms are not interchangeable. They mean specific things in the eyes of the international community.

The U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

A Syrian refugee father holds his child whille waiting to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, September 12, 2015. (Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

In other words, a refugee is fleeing armed conflict or persecution and would face potentially deadly consequences if denied asylum.

The 1951 Refugee Convention also guarantees certain rights that states must afford refugees. Chief among them is the right not to be expelled or returned to situations in which their lives would be under threat.

UNHCR says that migrants “choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons. Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment to return. If they choose to return home, they will continue to receive the protection of their government.”

To deal with migrants, countries use their own immigration laws and could turn them away.

The international community’s response

Confusing the terms migrant and refugee could have dire consequences for people seeking safe haven.

Several conservative European politicians, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, have recently been arguing that most of the immigrants are economic migrants.

On Monday, for instance, Orban said that if they were refugees they would stop in the first safe country they reach rather than continue on to Germany and other western European nations.

“If they want to continue on from Hungary, it’s not because they are in danger, it’s because they want something else,” he said.

A Syrian refugee rests at Idomeni train station where refugees and migrants are gathering before crossing Greece's border to Macedonia near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 11, 2015. (Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Other European leaders, notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, have been far more welcoming. Germany has resettled 98,700 Syrian refugees and Sweden has resettled 64,700. In August alone, more than 100,000 asylum seekers entered Germany.

"I am happy that Germany has become a country that many people outside of Germany now associate with hope," Merkel said on Sept. 7.

Merkel and Reinfeldt have called upon other EU countries to shoulder their fair share of the burden through a quota system, in the spirit of European solidarity.

Responding to public uproar, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his country, which had accepted fewer refugees than its neighbors, would resettle 20,000 Syrians over the next five years.

Israel is the only nation that shares a border with Syria that has not accepted any Syrian refugees.

"Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of Syrian and African refugees," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "but Israel is a small country — very small — without demographic or geographic depth. That is why we must control our borders."

The United States, which has only resettled about 1,500 Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict, has also come under pressure to do more.

“The U.S. is generally speaking the largest provider of refugee resettlement in the world, but its processes are also very slow,” Elsayed-Ali said.

U.S. President Barack Obama called for at least 10,000 Syrian refugees to be welcomed into the country next year, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday. This is a 2,000-person increase from the country's previous commitment to resettle 8,000.

Bara'ah Alhammadi, 10, a Syrian refugee, is carried on the back of her father as they make their way along a railway track after they crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border near Roszke, southern Hungary, Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. (Photo: Muhammed Muheisen/AP)

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) responded to the announcement with dismay, calling upon the U.S. to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. 

“This offer to 2,000 people is cold comfort to the victims of the Syrian conflict," IRC president David Miliband said Thursday in a statement. "With 4 million living in limbo and tens of thousands making desperate choices to reach safety, the U.S. has a moral responsibility to lead and is fully equipped to respond in a far more robust way."

How you can help

Several humanitarian organizations are accepting donations for Syrian refugees. These include UNHCR, the American Refugee Committee, Catholic Relief Services and Save the Children. A longer list can be found at Charity Navigator, an independent nonprofit that evaluates American charities.