More than a million refugees, mainly Middle Eastern, legally and illegally travelled to Europe to seek refuge and asylum. Europe, and especially wealthy Western European and Northern European states, has always been a target for people seeking asylum, however, the turmoil beginning after Arab Spring and especially Syrian Civil War triggered a huge influx of refugees to Europe and also sparked a continent-wide crisis which also contributed to rise of right-wing populism not just in Europe and also United States and other countries, and voiced criticism of European Union, which arguably established a hard or soft Euroscepticism among member states of EU. The migrant crisis also claimed thousands of publicized life of people trying to travel to Europe, therefore, the migrant crisis also turned to be a humanitarian one, opening discussions on European Union, humanitarianism, politics of Middle East and more.
For example, in 2015, when the migrant crisis gained its name and became publicized, EU member states received over 1.2 million first-time asylum applications, more than double of the 2014 and most of the burden of crisis is on countries on the route of migrants, such as Italy, Greece, non-EU Balkan Countries and Hungary, and also the destination countries, such as Germany, Austria and Sweden. As a response, some countries reintroduced border checks along Schengen borders and discouraged entry of migrants, creating a rift between those countries and others who adopted a policy of welcoming the migrants, therefore European Union couldn’t adopt a policy to handle the situation smoothly.
European Union regulations
Treaty on the Functioning of European Union states that the Union shall develop a common policy on control of external border control, migration, asylum and dealing with any third country national who seeks protection. To deal with issues regarding asylum seekers, the Common European Asylum System and the Dublin Regulation have been introduced.
European Union adopts the policy of Schengen Agreement, which abolishes any kind of border check along internal European borders. Twenty-two members of European Union is in Schengen Area and four EFTA members, Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Norway, also joins them in the common area. In terms of international travel, Schengen Area acts as a single country and adopts a common visa policy for every country included in the area.
Freedom of movement for people which is included in Treaty of Rome is the basis for Schengen Agreement. Before the Schengen Agreement, Benelux countries already abolished their shared borders and Schengen Agreement is signed by these countries with France and Germany. Initially, Schengen Agreement was independent from European Union however now it is an integral part of European Union, which is agreed by Amsterdam Treaty. Unless there is an opt-out for a country, all European Union countries are expected to join.
A crucial part of Schengen Agreement is co-operation on law enforcement, control of external borders and national security, therefore Schengen Information System complements this need. The agreement also allows member states to temporarily reinstate border checks along shared borders with other member states for reasons of national security.
European Union policy on asylum seekers is explained by Dublin Regulation, and the regulation establishes the EU mechanism about asylum seekers, the Dublin System. Dublin System aims to prevent asylum seekers from filing an asylum application in multiple member states and determines which member state is responsible for the asylum application for a case-by-case basis. Dublin Regulation states that the country of arrival is, in most cases, the responsible country for processing the application. In the recent migrant crisis, this rule caused the applications to concentrate on a small number of member states which are on the route for migration to wealthy Western European countries, namely Greece, Italy and Hungary and created an inequality among member states.
In 2008, European Parliament stated that “the Dublin system will continue to be unfair both to asylum seekers and to certain Member States”. A proposed amendment may create the possibility of transferring the asylum applications between member states, however, it is also stated that it won’t be possible for this to happen in short term and it requires a major institutional transformation and substantial resources.
Global status of refugees
As Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states, 65.3 million people around the world are displaced from their homes. 21.3 million of these constitute the refugee status and 10 million people are denied citizenship from the countries they live in, therefore these stateless persons cannot have basic rights. 53 percent of the refugee population originates from three certain countries, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Syria is the origin country of 4.9 million refugees, while Afghanistan is of 2.7 million and Somalia is of 1.1 million refugee people. In 2015, five other African countries, Sudan and South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea and Central African Republic also joined the top three countries in the ten largest countries as the origin of refugees.
In June 2015, UN Refugee Agency also stated that global wars and persecutions are the primary reasons for people fleeing their home and trying to seek refuge in other countries. The politic nature of these reasons also include violations of human rights and denial of minority rights, religious rights and sexual differences based on the predominant culture in countries. Economic concerns also force people to leave their homelands and seek to go to other countries in legal or illegal ways.
The contemporary European migrant crisis isn’t unique, and there are some examples in other geographical regions that has faced a refugee or crisis or is still facing.
After the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, more than 6 million Afghans had to leave their homes and move to neighbours Pakistan and Iran. The situation also continued following the War on Terror and US invasion. The situation of Afghan refugees in these neighbouring countries are getting worse.
Following the end of British rule and partition of India along religious concerns, 7 million Hindus and Sikhs moved to India from West and East Pakistan and 7 million Muslims in India moved to West and East Pakistan, creating one of the biggest human movements in history.
During the Bangladeshi Liberation War, India welcomed the Bangladeshi refugees and 10 million Bangladeshis moved to refugee camps in East India, escaping from Pakistan Army.
Vietnam War, regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia and other incidents in Indochina region prompted 3 million people to escape to neighbouring countries and also creating the phrase “boat people” for refugees.
The “boat people” phrase is also used for Cubans trying to go to United States during the event of Mariel Boatlift. The nature of Marielitas, such as some of them being released from asylums and jails to go to US, made the Mariel Boatlift a publicized and popular event, even making the base of the plot for the well-known movie “Scarface”.
During the interwar period, Jews in Germany tried to escape the Nazi regime, also escalating the question of “Jewish homeland”. Since 1900s, many Jews settled in Palestine and after the foundation of Israel, 850.000 Jews settled there until 1970.
Foundation of the State of Israel prompted another refugee crisis with Palestinians escaping Haganah and 1948 War. By the end of 1948, there were about 700.000 Palestinian refugees. Following the other conflicts between Israel and neighbouring states, especially the war in 1967, the crisis kept escalating. As of December 2005, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants estimates the number of Palestinian refugees as 2,966,100. Palestinian refugees make half of the Jordanian population. This crisis also includes Jews escaping Arab states and Syrians escaping Golan Heights after the invasion of this region in 1967 by Israel.
After World War I and Turkish War of Independence, Turkey and Greece agreed to make a population exchange on the basis of religion. Limiting the criteria to religion also caused Greek-speaking Muslim people without any knowledge of Turkish language or a relation to Turkish culture to forcibly resettle in Turkey and vice versa, Turkish speaking Orthodox people without any knowledge of Greek language to forcibly resettle in Greece, with limited exceptions included in the Treaty of Lausanne which ended the war. The population exchange led to political and economical consequences in both countries, especially in Greece.
Following World War II, the change of borders in Europe also led forced resettlements of various nationalities, such as expulsion of Germans from east of the established Oder-Neisse line and especially the former East Prussia, now Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia and Poland and forcibly replacement of them by Poles from today’s Western Ukraine and Belarus.
Other countries suffering from refugee crises are Lebanon after the Lebanon War, Iraq following the Iran-Iraq War, Gulf War and US invasion, Cyprus because of the Cyprus dispute, Ukraine, Sudan following the Darfur conflict, El Salvador, Haiti and Colombia in the Americas, and a lot of African countries which are war-torn, such as Somalia, Libya, Angola and more.
Instability in neighbouring regions and its effect on migration
Starting with demonstrations in Tunisia at the beginning of 2011, governments of Arabic countries in Middle East and North Africa faced demonstrations against them. Globally, these events and protests are called “Arab Spring”, however, response to the protests in some countries weren’t very peaceful and as these countries descended to instability, conflict, Islamist extremism and authoritarianism, the “Arab Spring” turned to be “Arab Winter”. For example, in Bahrain, a wealthy Gulf region country, the government decided to forcibly crush the protests and even demolished the Pearl Monument in Manama, the symbol of protests against Bahraini government. In Libya, the first chapter of conflict ended with Muammar Gaddafi getting killed and now, Libya faces another civil war. In Syria, the situation quickly escalated into a civil war with a lot of sides and even intervention by other countries.
Initially, the refugees trying to escape Syria was seeking refuge at neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. By June 13th, 2012, 26.700 Syrians registered for aid in Turkey, 19.068 in Lebanon, 24.000 in Jordan and 4.549 in Iraq. Also, 300.000 Syrians were displaced and relocated to other parts of Syria. However, the numbers dramatically increased by December, 135.519 in Turkey, 150.000 in Lebanon, 142.000 in Jordan, more than 150.000 in Egypt and 63.000 in Iraq, also including Iraqi Kurdistan. The year of 2012 also saw Italy receiving Syrian refugees for the first time.
In 2013, some countries receiving refugees other than neighbouring countries are Bulgaria, Sweden and Brazil. In September, Sweden became the first EU member country to grant permanent residency and family reunion to Syrian refugees, allowing about 8.000 Syrian refugees to stay in Sweden and reunite with their families by the decision. Brazil also decided to give humanitarian visas to Syrians via the diplomatic mission neighbouring Syria. Italy also received 4.600 refugees, Argentina admitted three hundred families in the country and the number of refugees increased to 1.5 million.
Also, in Libya after the beginning of the civil war at the same year, people escaped to neighbouring countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt. An estimation made in May 2011 numbers the Libyans who fled the country since the war began as 746.000. Also, in the first five months of 2011, 45.000 refugees reached the Lampedusa island of Italy.
The conflict in Ukraine also caused a movement to Russia and Europe, and ongoing unrest in Balkan countries such as Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia also led nationals of these countries to seek asylum in Europe.
Inception of the crisis in Europe
The first sights of such a crisis were the deaths of asylum seekers trying to reach Europe, in this case Italy and Malta, from Libya and via Mediterranean Sea by ships, some of which are unsuitable for open sea sailing. These publicized incidents actually date back before the Arab Spring or Arab Winter and the island of Lampedusa gained international recognition because of the incidents. Geographically, Lampedusa is the closest territory of Italian Republic to Libya. Before the crisis in Libya, Italian and Libyan governments reached an agreement which allowed Italy to deport illegal immigrants back to Libya, which is declared unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights. The agreement was also broken because of the dissolution of Libyan government. Greece and Bulgaria also increased the level of security along their land border with Turkey by constructing a fence.
In 3rd of October, 2013, a ship carrying people of African descent sank off the Lampedusa island, claiming more than 360 lives. The incident was followed by another shipwreck eight days later and these incidents triggered the Operation Mare Nostrum, a search and rescue operation conducted by Italian Navy. The operation was expensive for Italian economy and ended in October 2014, replaced by Operation Triton of Frontex, which is the EU institution responsible of the external border control of Schengen Area. During the one-year lifespan of Operation Mare Nostrum, 150.000 immigrants safely reached to Europe. Operation Triton receives criticism from humanitarian non-governmental organizations and also EU member countries and the operation doesn’t receive funding from every EU member country and has less resources such as funding and equipment than the former operation, which was ran only by Italy. For comparison, monthly expense of Mare Nostrum was €9 million and of Triton was €2.9 million in 2014.
Frontex states that 283.582 people illegally entered Schengen Europe, with Syrian nationals being the most, followed by Eritrea, unspecified sub-Saharan nationalities, Afghanistan and Kosovo. Italy was the first arrival point for most of them, making 170.664 of the arrivals. 62.000 of them applied for asylum in Italy, however, half of the people arrived to Italy continued to Germany and Sweden.
2015 saw the dramatic increase in arrivals and the naming of the ongoing crisis. Until 2015, the predominant route used by refugees was from Libyan coast to Italian coast, however in this year, Greece took over Italy as the mostly used first arrival point, with refugees arriving from Turkey. In this year, Turkey also overtook Lebanon as the country hosting most Syrian refugees. In case of Turkey, the assumption of government was a quick solution for the Syrian Civil War and an open-doors policy for refugees. The political assumption turned out to be wrong and as of April 2017, Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees, 2.973.980. Officials of conservative Islamist-leaning government of Turkey also told about the “religious brotherhood” as the basis of welcoming Syrian refugees. However, four years after the beginning of conflict, Turkey also became a primary milestone for Syrians trying to get in Europe.
As the weather got warmer in 2015, the number of people who preferred the route via Turkey and Greece to Europe has increased dramatically and disproportionally as compared to older statistics and even the numbers of people arrived at Italy, with number of people arrived at Greece in summer months reaching six-digit numbers. In June 2015, government of Macedonia decided to grant refugees transit visas to allow them go through the country to Europe. In August 2015, UNHCR stated that 124.000 refugees arrived at Greece and 98.000 at Italy since January 2015. Frontex also states that July 2015 broke the record with 107.500 migrants entered the EU. In April, the route via Mediterranean also kept claiming lives with an increase of shipwrecking and drowning of asylum seekers. Therefore, the disproportional increase in numbers and use of Balkans to reach Central Europe sparked the crisis.
The actual crisis
The reactions of EU member countries to the crisis also showed difference. For example, Germany and Czech Republic decided to suspend the Dublin Regulation, which prevented migrants to apply for asylum in multiple countries and gave the first country of arrival the responsibility of refugees, for allowing refugees. Hungary responded by building border barrier along its border with Serbia and Croatia. Also, some clashes between the refugees and Hungarian law enforcement authorities are repeatedly reported, with a publicized incident happening in September 2015, at Budapest Keleti railway station when police blocked the station to prevent the migrants moving to European Union. The stance of Hungarian government on the crisis also receives both criticism and support as conservative Viktor Orban regularly uses an anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric, claiming that Hungary “can lose its European values” and also claiming to defend the nation-state and national sovereignty. The support for Hungarian policy comes from internal politicians and also other right-wing politicians and organizations at Europe.
As the refugee crisis overwhelmed especially Italy, Greece and Hungary and aftermath of the shipwrecks in April, EU had emergency talks and Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel proposed a policy of distribution of refugees within European Union based on the populations of those countries, noting that five member states handling three-quarter of asylum seekers. This call led to the proposal of a scheme of quota for distribution of refugees, which also received criticism from particular countries, mainly the Visegrad Four. The plan is approved by EU ministers with objection of Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania, the plan aims the relocation of 120.000 refugees from Greece, Italy and Hungary. As Hungary opposed to the plan, Hungary isn’t included in the plan.
European Union also persuaded and supported Turkey to spend effort for deterring the flow of migrants to Europe and therefore close the route via Balkans. After negotiations, in 20th of March, 2016, EU and Turkey made a controversial deal. The deal plans to send back the migrants who illegally entered in Greece to Turkey and admit one of the Syrian refugees in Turkey to EU in exchange of political gains to Turkish government and monetary support to Turkey and Syrian refugees in Turkey. UNHCR stated that it won’t take part or responsibility in this deal and the deal received widespread criticism in both Turkey and Europe, with critics saying that refugees are used as a bargaining chip for the deal and likening the deal to slave trade. Amnesty International also called the deal unlawful and released a report saying that Turkey is not a safe country for refugees. As the relations between EU and Turkey are deteriorated, the deal is not working smoothly, and Turkish government officials, especially Erdogan, called for the cancellation of the deal and even threatened to allow refugees to get in Europe.
During 2015 and 2016, Europe also became a target for terrorist attacks perpetrated by the jihadist organizations, primarily Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. Notable incidents are the Paris attacks in November 2015, the attack targeting Brussels Zaventem Airport in March 2016, Nice truck attack during the Bastille Day celebrations in July 2016 and Berlin Christmas Market attack in December 2016. So-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for all these terror incidents mentioned above and during the investigations aftermath of the November 2015 attacks in Paris, it is found that some perpetrators entered Europe during the flow of migrants. These incidents also led to the rise of right-wing politics and anti-immigrant rhetoric, followed by Euroscepticism throughout Europe.
Some anti-Islamist movements in European countries also emphasized anti-immigrant rhetoric, gained publicization and received increasing support, such as PEGIDA in Germany by organizing mass protests against the welcoming policy of German government, PVV in Netherlands and National Front in France. The issue of refugees also has been a topic of discussion included in the broader Brexit discussions in Great Britain and in this country, political parties such as United Kingdom Independence Party or UKIP, politicians like Eurosceptics in Conservatives and the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage gained support, and also far-right organizations such as Britain First, Britain National Party and English Defence League made headlines.
 https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/sites/homeaffairs/files/what-we-do/policies/european-agenda-migration/ background-information/docs/20160406/factsheet_-_the_dublin_system_en.pdf.
 http://www.avrupa.info.tr/sites/default/files/2017-04/170302_facility_for_refugees_in_turkey_first_annual_ report_TR_BC_0.pdf.
*Istanbul University Political Science and International Relations