The human tragedy of thousands of asylum seekers floundering—and dying—in the Mediterranean highlights an unprecedented global challenge for the 21st century. “In terms of migrants and refugees, nothing has been seen like this since World War Two“, says Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organization for Migrants. Globally there were estimated to be 16.7 million refugees and 34 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the end of 2013. The conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen alone have created some 15 million refugees and IDPs. The numbers are growing on an almost daily basis. Just in the past few weeks, the fighting in Yemen has displaced another 150,000 while fighting in Iraq’s Ramadi has added another 114,000 to Iraq’s total displaced of around 3 million refugees and IDPs.
Most of the world’s displaced seek shelter either elsewhere in their own country or in neighboring countries. However, buffeted by wars and harsh economic, political, and social conditions, people mainly from Africa and the Middle East but elsewhere as well are escaping to the developed world to evade their circumstances—and doing so in growing numbers.
Across the world there were an estimated 866,000 asylum applications in 2014 to what the UNHCR calls the 44 “industrialized countries.” There were 270,000 more than in 2013. This number is significantly less than the actual numbers of people seeking refuge or better economic circumstances, either legally or illegally, in host nations that offer varying degrees of hospitality. The largest number of asylum applications in 2014 were registered in Germany (173,100), followed by the United States (121,200), Turkey (87,800), Sweden (75,100), and Italy (63,700).
According to the UNHCR, Europe received some 714,300 asylum claims in 2014, up from 485,000 in 2013. EU member states accounted for 80 percent of this number in 2014—an increase of 44 percent compared to 2013. As to the country of origin of these asylum seekers, the top 5 countries in descending order were Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Eritrea. Syria and Iraq accounted for 30.1 percent of all asylum applications made in the EU. Many refugees do not immediately apply for asylum in their first point of entry. Those arriving in Southern Europe and the Balkans sometimes prefer to wait until they are in northern countries, given their better benefits, to apply. Others, lacking proper documentation or unsure of their asylum prospects, may never apply. They disappear into informal jobs as they try and build a new life for themselves.
Chances of receiving asylum vary widely. In the United Kingdom, 36 percent of applicants in 2013 received an initial positive decision. For the others, there are appeal processes in play and various other means of staying in the country, legally or otherwise; only 24 percent of the 2013 cohort were sent back or took advantage of voluntary repatriation schemes. The EU averaged a 25 percent approval rate in 2013, with Malta (72 percent) and Italy (62 percent) having the highest rates. Only four countries—Germany, Italy, France, and Sweden—accounted for over two-thirds of asylum applications in that year.
While Syrians represented the largest of number asylum seekers in 2014, that number (149,600) is tiny compared to the total number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries (4 million) and to those internally displaced within the country (8 million). Still, the number of Syrian asylum seekers increased as did Iraqi asylum seekers. Iraqi asylum seekers stood at 68,700 in 2014, more than double the 2013 figure of 37,300. Turkey registered 50,500 or 74 percent of all Iraqi asylum seekers in 2014. Compared to the number of Syrians and Iraqis taken in by bordering countries (Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey), Europe, and countries like the United States, Australia and others have remained largely closed to those seeking refuge from the wars in Syria and Iraq.
Efforts by the EU to stem the flow of arrivals from the Mediterranean by relying on fences and closed doors will only serve to displace the challenge. Ultimately, a policy of managed immigration is likely to be the final outcome as the UNHCR calls for a more robust search-and-rescue operation and enhanced legal avenues such as resettlement programs, humanitarian visas, and enhanced family reunification measures. However the EU will also have to deal with the government in Tripoli, which controls the ports of departure but is unrecognized by the EU. A strategy will also be needed to spread the burden of asylum seekers more equitably across the EU, open transit camps in North Africa and elsewhere, and tackle the smugglers and the financial gains made possible by current policies.
However, this is in reality a small portion of the global crisis of refugees and IDPs. We should by all means tackle this human tragedy and end the horrors being witnessed in the Mediterranean. But we should also recognize that the global problem is getting worse as the wars in the Middle East and elsewhere continue, and people are displaced, killed, and maimed every day. Closing doors and building fences work in very limited ways. Refugees can have an impact on whole societies and regions decades after the tragedies that led to their displacement. Just as we are doing with climate change and global epidemics, it’s time for a global response to the refugee crisis—before it further destabilizes an already fragile global order.