Just a year ago, the wave of people felt unstoppable. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and economic migrants from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean, landing in a stunned but initially welcoming Europe. Hundreds of thousands more were on their way, according to The Globe and Mail .
The borders seemed to disappear in late 2015 and early 2016 and the 28 countries of the European Union received a stunning 1.3 million asylum applications in 2015 alone.
And then the walls started to go up. Hungary, a major migration hub in 2014 and 2015, fenced itself off from southern neighbour Serbia. When the refugees and migrants marching north from Greece simply detoured around into Croatia, Hungary fenced off its western border as well.
Today, the border fences and walls are the norm along the EU’s southern edge. Croatia, Austria and Slovenia have all followed Hungary’s lead in sealing their frontiers.
The number of asylum claims received by EU countries fell dramatically to 350,000 last year, and that figure looks set to decline again in 2017. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recorded just 5,862 arrivals by sea in January, compared to 73,135 in the same month of 2016.
To be Muslim and on the move these days can be a vexing challenge. As U.S. President Donald Trump battles his country’s courts in a bid to impose a ban on new arrivals from seven Muslim-majority countries, tens of thousands of mostly Muslim asylum seekers are trapped in Southern Europe, partway between the countries they’re fleeing and the new lives they dream of in Germany, Sweden and elsewhere.
As symbolic as the border fences of Central Europe are, it was a March, 2016, deal between the EU and Turkey that really dammed the flow of people.
Under the pact, the EU promised to provide €3-billion (about $4.2-billion Canadian) in aid to the Turkish government – and to move toward lifting visa requirements for Turkish citizens – in exchange for Turkey taking “any necessary measures to prevent new sea or land routes for irregular migration opening from Turkey to the EU.”
Before the deal, Turkish port cities like Izmir and Bodrum were bustling hubs of activity, places where new arrivals from Syria and beyond would meet cynical human traffickers, charging up to $1,000 a person for space on flimsy rubber dinghies that would launch each night in the direction of the Greek islands somewhere in the darkness. Turkish police made only a token effort to crack down on the trade.
The EU-Turkey deal called for any Syrians arriving in Greece to be returned to Turkey, a clause meant to deter asylum seekers from making the dangerous sea crossing that has killed more than 12,000 people (including those who died trying to reach Italy from Libya) over the past three years.
While the EU-Turkey agreement has proved successful in reducing the number of people reaching Europe, it has had the side effect of causing some migrants to attempt longer and more dangerous sea crossings. Despite the dramatic fall in the number of new arrivals in Greece, the number of known deaths at sea actually rose from 3,771 in 2015 to 5,096 last year. Another 255 people have died in the first six weeks of 2017.
Meanwhile – prevented from travelling to Europe – the number of Syrians in Turkey continues to grow. The Turkish government said there are more than 2.8 million registered Syrian refugees in the country as of January, with most living in camps near the Turkish-Syrian border.
Politics could yet unwind the EU-Turkey deal. Furious over perceived Western support for a failed coup against him last summer, as well as EU criticism of subsequent political purges, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to tear up the pact and stop obstructing the flow of refugees.
“If you go any further, these border gates will be opened,” Mr. Erdogan said in November. “Do not forget, the West needs Turkey.”
While the number of Syrians landing on Greece’s islands dwindled rapidly after the EU-Turkey deal was signed, migrants from other countries have continued to arrive, only to discover that the way north – a journey the Greek government helped to facilitate for refugees in 2015 – is now blocked.
As a result, thousands of asylum seekers have been spending a cold and snowy winter in makeshift shelters around Athens or in canvas tents in the underserviced refugee camps that have sprung up on Greece’s normally balmy vacation islands.
Some of the migrants have been stranded on island refugee camps for the past 10 months, ever since the EU-Turkey deal was signed in March.
“Europe’s failed policies have contributed to immense suffering for people warehoused on the Greek islands in increasingly desperate conditions,” Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a recent report.
The International Organization for Migration counts 62,401 “stranded” refugees and migrants in Greece, including 5,746 people – mostly Syrians and Iraqis – who are stuck in the ramshackle Moria refugee camp on Lesbos.
Upward of 2,000 others – mainly Pakistanis and Syrians – are trapped on the islands of Kos and Samos, respectively.
The presence of so many migrants on the islands has fed increasing anger among locals, who have seen their vital tourist industry dry up as media reports about the refugee crisis have scared travellers away from Lesbos, Kos and Samos.
Thousands more asylum seekers, identified by the IOM as predominantly Afghans and Iranians, are stuck at reception centres around Athens, while another large group, mostly Afghans and Syrians, are camped in harsh conditions just south of Greece’s border with Macedonia, which was sealed in early 2016.
In the early days of the refugee crisis, Serbia and its citizens won broad praise for the hospitality – and lack of hostility – they showed toward the masses of refugees and migrants passing through their country. Serbs, many of whom remember fleeing the Balkan wars of the 1990s, seemed more understanding of the new arrivals than their neighbours in Hungary and elsewhere.
In 2015, Serbia’s capital city of Belgrade was a key transit point along what was known as the Western Balkan Route that migrants followed on their way north to Central Europe. The cafés facing Belgrade’s main train and bus stations were the known hangouts of people-smugglers, who operated openly with little interference from Serbian police.
The parks nearby were crammed that summer with Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and Pakistanis sleeping under the sky, waiting for the smugglers’ signal to move north.
But Serbia’s laissez-faire attitude was easier to maintain when it was clear the migrants were just passing through.
Many in Belgrade say the mood is changing now, as it becomes clear that the EU intends to leave Serbia to deal with the refugees who were trapped in the country when Hungary and Croatia erected border fences. (There have also been multiple reports of Hungary, Croatia and Bulgaria forcibly returning new arrivals to Serbia.)
“We were very flexible in the past because we were counting on just being a corridor. Now that’s changing. We’re becoming a buffer zone, where these people are being kept here,” said Zoran Milivojevic, a retired Serbian diplomat. “There are tensions, particularly in small towns. If [the migrants] stay longer, there will be problems.”
The IOM says there are 5,919 refugees and migrants stranded in Serbia, nearly all of them housed in a network of asylum centres established during the Balkan wars. UNHCR says the real number may be closer to 7,700, with about 1,000 men and boys sleeping rough on the streets of Belgrade, where makeshift shelters have been erected near the main train and bus stations.
Despite the border fences, the migrants continue to try and push north. The UNHCR recorded one incident on Feb. 2 that saw a group of 12 Algerian men inadvertently set off a small explosion – injuring four of the men – when they tripped a wire while trying to board a cargo train bound for Croatia.
A day later, a group of 15 to 20 Afghan men (led by Pakistani smugglers) fell through the ice as they tried to cross a frozen river into Hungary. One of the men is missing and presumed dead.
Dinka Valev has become synonymous with the refugee and migrant crisis in Bulgaria, epitomizing the country’s hostile response to the asylum seekers.
The 30-year-old semi-professional wrestler first made headlines last year when he posted a video on his Facebook page of 16 Syrians – 12 men, three women and a child – he claimed to have captured singlehandedly after they illegally entered the country near his hometown of Yambol, near the Turkish border. In another video, Mr. Valev can be seen loudly berating another group of refugees, asking why they came to Bulgaria, and accusing them of being terrorists.
The videos have been condemned by human-rights groups, but Mr. Valev has become something of a cult figure in his country. He was praised in local media as a “superhero” for his efforts to keep refugees and migrants out of Bulgaria.
In more recent videos, Mr. Valev is no longer working alone. Instead, he carries out his self-assigned task of monitoring the border area in the company of dozens of other Bulgarian men riding motorbikes and all-terrain vehicles. The group appears to have since acquired at least one armoured personal carrier, and copycat vigilante organizations have sprung up in other cities to help “protect Bulgaria.”
Despite the vigilante groups – and a fence along Bulgaria’s border with Turkey – the IOM says there are 4,702 refugees and migrants trapped in the country, most of them in settlements near the capital city, Sofia.
In 2015, as Central Europe opened its arms to the refugees heading its way – and particularly after the shocking photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach gained attention worldwide – Hungary was the continent’s bad boy.
While German Chancellor Angela Merkel was urging her country to welcome the hundreds of thousands of newcomers arriving in German train stations, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was building a razor-wire fence on the country’s southern border and ordering riot police to use tear gas and water cannon to push back anyone who tried to approach the barrier.
At the time, Ms. Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany, accused Mr. Orban, once a prominent anti-Soviet dissident, of forgetting the lessons of the Cold War, when it was Hungarians and East Germans who were climbing over walls and swimming across rivers in pursuit of better lives.
Eighteen months later, Mr. Orban says events have shown that he, rather than Ms. Merkel, was on the right side of history.
Hungary’s border fence has been replicated by nearly all of its neighbours, and Mr. Orban won a referendum last fall that he says gives him a mandate to opt out of an EU plan to share the continent’s new arrivals among its member states.
Now, following Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, Mr. Orban’s government is planning to take the crackdown a step further and to detain any refugees and migrants – including those already in Hungary – until their asylum cases are decided.
Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said this week that Mr. Orban’s ideas were now mainstream in Europe. “We believe a change of perspective in the U.S. helped others to respect the Hungarian position.”
Despite Hungary’s anti-migrant stand, people continue to try and cross the country on their way further north. UNHCR says 48 migrants were detained by Hungarian police during the last week of January for illegal entry, while another 276 were intercepted and expelled back across the country’s borders.
With the route from Turkey to Greece effectively closed, those most desperate to reach Europe are now forced to make the longer sea journey from North Africa to Italy.
A year ago, there were about 15 arrivals on the islands of Greece for every migrant who made it to Italy. Today, the situation has somewhat flipped, with 4,243 arrivals in Italy last month, compared with 1,203 in Greece.
The sea trip to Italy is more perilous, and the death toll will continue to rise as migrants keep risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean in rickety craft.
It’s also a different mix of people arriving on Italian shores. While the vast majority of refugees arriving on Greek islands since 2015 are from Syria (which accounted for 47 per cent on its own), Afghanistan or Iraq, the largest source country for those arriving in Italy is Nigeria, followed by Eritrea, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Gambia.