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Europe's Refugee Crisis: 6 months on from the death of Aylan Kurdi, where are we now?

18th February 2016
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The image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach was probably the most striking media photograph of last year, and arguably the jolt that was needed to alter the collective conscious on what has come to be known as the “refugee crisis.”

The picture painted what words had failed to: a small life lost; a child who in another context could have been asleep and safe - but wasn’t. It gave a human face to a movement of people that was previously easy to view as a critical mass; impossible to emotionally engage with.

The beginning of March marks six months since the events in Bodrum, so now seems like a good time to reflect on Europe’s continued handling of the crisis – and ask what the consequences of the initial surge of responsibility have been.

According to the Missing Migrant Project, part of the International Organization for Migration, 1,046,599 migrants (including asylum seekers) passed into Europe in 2015. The overall number is those who have arrived via land or sea so far in 2016 is 84,406. 78,333 of these have entered Greece alone. Over 8,500 arrived in the week up to 19th February. 410 are known to have drowned, or are missing. Another million are expected to cross the Aegean once the weather improves.

The numbers are understandably hard to visualise.

It’s an ancient journey that refugees are currently taking: from Greece to Macedonia, up the Vardar river valley; to Serbia and eventually to Berlin. It’s a route, says Macedonia’s foreign minister Nikola Poposki, “used by the Romans, Ottomans and Crusaders”.

It’s unfortunate that Greece, in the midst of a decade of financial woe, is the point at which those fleeing from the Middle East naturally land. Now, the European Commission has handed the country a list of ways that it needs to improve the way it deals with the influx of people.

Meanwhile, Macedonia might be about to close its border to Middle Eastern refugees – as it already has to those from North Africa - potentially blocking off a key route out of Greece. Further north, there are fears that Serbia might do the same thing. No straightforward solutions have yet been presented, and fears that the chance to reach Western Europe might soon vanish are palpable. According to UNICEF, “You can feel the fear” at the Macedonian border. A summit Brussels on the evening of 18th February, according to EU officials, looked unlikely to provide answers.

And what of the refugees when – and if – they arrive on western shores?

In Germany, Angela Merkel’s “welcome culture” is facing a serious challenge. Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer is considering suing the government over what he has called her “illegality”; the notion, based on a law that says it is impossible to seek asylum in Germany after arriving by land, is quickly taking hold in conservative circles. The EU-supported law states that refugees must seek asylum in the first “safe state” that they enter. All of Germany’s nine neighbours are safe states; entering via land and seeking asylum is therefore potentially a crime sanctioned by the government.

In the context of Paris and Cologne, the current mood is reflective of this anti-Merkel train of thought.  

In terms of emotional response, the events that took place in Cologne on New Year’s Eve – where multiple women were reportedly assaulted and robbed in and around the city’s main train station – may be seen as only second to Aylan Kurdi’s death. Predictably, the tide of sympathy for those embraced by Germany wavered, and in many cases soured, as a result.

The facts of what happened remain murky. After media hysteria, it was claimed – including by a senior official at the UN – that initial reports that the majority of assailants were refugees weren’t in fact correct. Various sources place the number of refugees arrested in relation to the attacks between three and 18, and the number of arrests overall between 31 and 73.

Whatever the truth – and it’s likely to be a while before we‘re able to establish what that is –perceptions remain, and the right wing in Germany and elsewhere are further fuelled in their anti-migration rhetoric.

All is hardly rosy for those reaching Britain, either.

The Economist last week reflected on how, over the past decade and a half, those seeking asylum have been concentrated in certain locales – including Middlesbrough, its close neighbour Stockton, and Rochdale in Greater Manchester. These areas all share similar social problems, poverty and unemployment key amongst them.

Whilst it might seem that housing refugees in areas that already have problems isn’t ideal - it’s true that new arrivals struggle to find work and the provision of English lessons is often patchy – it’s not all bad news. Communities with a history of accepting those seeking asylum have naturally become more receptive to it; in Stockton, which has the country’s fourth highest number of refugees per resident, organically grown refugee support groups have bolstered the community. One-time refugee children have thrived, and have left to study at university.

In the long-term, though, surely a policy that deliberately places refugees in deprived areas can’t stand up? According to the International Monetary Fund, integrating refugees better into the job market would encourage economic growth. Placing often well-educated and skilled asylum seekers in areas that can’t utilise their talents fully hardly seems wise. Maybe it’s time for the Home Office to rethink where it houses its new citizens if it wants to benefit them - and the country - in the long-term.

Back in the Aegean, on 17th February the body of an as yet unnamed four-year-old Afghan boy arrived on the Greek island of Chios via boat. His family were amongst 600 to arrive on the island that Wednesday; he was reported to have died during the crossing. There are no images of him to bolster an Aylan Kurdi-esque wave of sympathy. As European leaders gather in Brussels to discuss potential answers - ostensibly over dinner - the trail of devastation elsewhere continues.

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