The images of Europe's refugee crisis are intractable. Nearly 1 million people migrated to the European Union from the Mideast and Africa last year, according to the International Organization for Migration. It's the continent's largest refugee influx since World War II. Most fled violence or poverty looking for a safe haven — and a chance to build a good life for themselves and their children.
But with another 3 million refugees expected in 2016, according to an IMF report released today, the mass migration will get worse before it gets better, and it has raised questions about the future of Europe.
Greece has borne the brunt of the exodus, with more than 850,000 people reaching its shores — nearly all arriving on Greek Islands from the nearby Turkish coast. The influx surge goes on unabated, yet the European response has been fractured. The situation is so dire, many celebrities, like Susan Sarandon, a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, have tried to raise public awareness on the stark realities of the worsening situation.
The following photos tell the story.
— By Lori Ioannou, senior editor, CNBC.com
Posted 20 January 2016
Refugees continue to put a strain on the Greek Islands as thousands arrive each week on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros in inflatable dinghies and wooden boats from Turkey. On Lesbos alone, 2,000 arrive each day. About 60 percent are from Syria; the rest are mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, according to UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency. Their goal: to get to the mainland and travel through the Balkans — particularly Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Bulgaria — until they reach northern Europe.
Greece, a country in depression that has lost 25 percent of its GDP over the last seven years, will see the refugee crisis exact an even greater toll on its broken economy this year. According to the IMF report released today, "The Refugee Surge in Europe: Economic Challenges," the indebted nation spent 300 million euros, or 0.17 percent of GDP, on asylum seekers. In 2016 the costs will more than double, exceeding 600 million euros, or 0.34 percent of GDP.
Thousands of life jackets litter the shores of Lesbos, the Greek island receiving the bulk of refugees headed for the rest of Europe. Each day during the winter, some 2,000 to 4,000 migrants flood the shores of this rocky coastline that is separated from Turkey by the Mytilini Strait. That number increases tenfold in the summer during high season.
Today, volunteers are trying to clean up the island's beaches, but it's a daunting task. The jackets piled high are a monument to the displaced people who have risked their lives for a brighter future — and the challenge that lies ahead.
More and more children are refugees on the move. Many are unaccompanied minors and children under five who have either been separated from their parents or sent ahead by their families in the Mideast and Africa to avoid war and ill treatment.
The trend picked up momentum last October, claims Doctors without Borders. It reports that 35 percent of its medical and psychological evaluations were for children on the island of Lesbos last year.
Plans are to build facilities to house unaccompanied children in Greece and place others with foster families and a network of guardians, METAction reports. A grant from the Hellenic Initiative is funding the first such facility in Lesbos.
The demographics of refugees landing in Greece is changing, according to John Mouzalas, Deputy Interior Minister of Greece. Up until November, 80 percent of the migrants were refugees from the Mideast. Now 50 percent are refugees, and 50 percent are illegal immigrants coming from such countries in Africa as Nigeria, Algeria and Morocco.
In central Athens, migrants are setting up makeshift camps on the streets until they are transferred to such facilities as an indoor sports stadium used during the 2004 Olympic Games.
"This is changing the nature of the problem for Europe," Mouzalas said. "Most of these illegal immigrants are men in their 20s and 30s. To tackle the crisis, we need European solidarity."
"The conditions for refugees on the island of Lesbos are heartbreaking," said actress Susan Sarandon after visiting the camps and touring all facilities in December. "Greece is overwhelmed with this unfair burden — both financially and in terms of manpower."
As she explained, there are some 70 NGOs working on the island and throughout Greece, but coordination between organizations is difficult. The camps are overcrowded; there is no electricity or heat. People burn plastic bottles and blankets to stay warm. Despite the chaos, Sarandon said, "they are so happy to be alive. Many fled because their house was blown up, or their cousin was beheaded, or they were raped. For them, this was their only alternative."
A surge in the number of bodies of refugees whose boats capsized as they tried to reach Europe has filled the burial grounds of the Greek island of Lesbos to capacity, according to the island's mayor. The island's morgues, cemeteries and emergency services have been overwhelmed by the situation.
More than 3,700 people have died trying to make the trip from Turkey to the nearby Dodecanese islands in Greece in inflatable dinghies and small wooden boats, according to the International Organization for Migration. Closure of EU external land borders has left them no choice but to use the sea as their main route for asylum.