More refugees and migrants have risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea so far this year than in all of 2014, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Over 300,000 people have made the dangerous journey since January, seeking safety in Europe and an escape from the violence, persecution, and poverty of the Middle East and North Africa. It's a huge increase from the 219,000 people who made the journey last year.
The deaths of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean and in Europe have also made headlines around the world. In the past week alone, two boats carrying some 500 refugees capsized off the coast of Libya. The bodies of some 105 people washed ashore, and another 100 people are feared dead, according to the UN. On Thursday, Austrian authorities discovered an abandoned truck on the side of the highway; inside were the bodies of 71 refugees, including women and children, who are thought to have been escaping Syria.
Refinery29 breaks down the crisis to help you understand what you need to know now.
Refugees and migrants are making this dangerous journey. And yes, there is a difference.
According to the UNHCR, refugees are people "fleeing armed conflict and persecution." As such, they are protected by international law. The UNHCR estimates that there were some 19 million refugees around the world at the end of 2014. Refugees are often fleeing "situations so perilous and intolerable they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries," according to the UN. Those fleeing persecution from the government of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria are considered refugees, for example.
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," according to the UN. Migrants could return home safely, if they chose to, and would receive protection from their government.
All Syrians staying here would go back to Syria if the war ended. Never in our lives have we thought of leaving Syria, but now we must go.
Women and girls fleeing conflict zones face particular challenges even as they reach refugee camps. A simple trip to the toilet or to gather water can leave refugee women and girls vulnerable to rape and abuse, according to the UNHCR.
Pregnant women are also risking their lives to make it to Europe. And because of an ongoing funding crisis, some 70,000 Syrian refugee women alone risk unsafe deliveries of their babies because of the lack of healthcare facilities. The UN also estimates some 750,000 Syrian children are not attending school because they are displaced by the conflict.
LGBTQ refugees face dire threats from many different sides.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender refugees are particularly vulnerable to abuse and persecution from their governments and other armed groups. Last week, Syrian refugee Subhi Nahas, who is gay, addressed world leaders at the United Nations Security Council. It was the first time the UN Security Council had ever held a meeting specifically addressing LGBTQ issues. Nahas told the UN that he had faced persecution both from Syria's army and from fighters from the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS. ISIS began executing men it suspected of being gay, and Nahas said he was forced to flee.
"At the executions, hundreds of townspeople, including children, cheered jubilantly as at a wedding. If a victim did not die after being hurled off a building, the townspeople stoned him to death. This was to be my fate, too," Nahas testified. "I was terrified to go out. Nor was my home safe, as my father, who suspiciously monitored my every move, had learned I was gay."
People from Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Eritrea (a small country in the Horn of Africa) make up 60% of those who attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea to seek refuge in the European Union.
Ongoing civil war has devastated the people of Syria. More than 200,000 Syrians have died as a result of the violence in their country over the past four years, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The armed conflict between government forces and the rebel group has displaced another 4 million people, and that number continues to grow, according to the UN. The conflict started when President Bashar Al-Assad cracked down on pro-democracy protests in 2011. The BBC has a comprehensive timeline of Syria's conflict.
Somalia's decades-long strife began in the 1980s. In 1991, opposition leaders overthrew the socialist regime established by President Siad Barre, and Somalia fell into an anarchy from which it struggled to recover. After the millennium, the armed Muslim group Al-Shabaab began to gain power, joining forces with Al Qaeda. Today, there are almost 1 million registered Somali refugees.
The world is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
Only 6.5 million people live in Eritrea. More than 360,000 individuals have fled to other countries. “In Eritrea you’re even afraid to talk to your family,” a refugee told The Guardian after she arrived in Egypt in April of this year. Thirty-seven thousand Eritreans sought asylum in 2014, nearly triple the amount from the year before. In the tiny country, a single-party government reigns through repression, executions, forced labor, and torture, according to the UN Human Rights Commissioner.
Greece is the major transit country for people arriving from the Middle East and North Africa. The nation has nearly 9,000 miles of shoreline, which is how 230,000 individuals have crossed Greek borders since January 2015, according to the BBC. Many of these people are refugees escaping perilous situations at home.
The influx is overwhelming for a country already suffering greatly with domestic problems — Greece is in the midst of a financial crisis and has come close to defaulting on its international debts several times. Struggling to support its own citizens, Greece is now tasked with how to house — or relocate — the thousands of people taking shelter on its soil until they can travel to countries in the northern European Union. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) recommends that Greece relocate at least 70,000 refugees (those in need of international protection) per year. Currently, the country's goal is to relocate 16,000. ERCE calls this "highly insufficient."
If a victim did not die after being hurled off a building, the townspeople stoned him to death. This was to be my fate, too.
The same ECRE report also recommends that Italy begin relocating 70,000 refugees annually. In the midst of the refugee crisis, Italy is actually reducing its efforts to help rescue individuals attempting to arrive there by sea. Though Italy does not house nearly as many refugees as Greece or Turkey, many Eritrean and Syrian refugees make their way to Italy's southern shores — nearly 100,000 refugees are there today. Italy colonized Eritrea during the "scramble for Africa" at the turn of the 20th century, which may help explain why Eritrean refugees choose to seek refuge there.