Worldwide displacement is now at the highest level on record: 59.5 million in 2014, up from 37.5 million ten years ago. This year's numbers represent the biggest annual increase in displacement ever seen. Today, one in every 122 people is either a refugee, asylum seeker, or internally displaced.
These statistics include people who leave their countries as well as those still within the border but forced to flee their homes— the result of natural disasters, famines, and (by far the most common cause) armed conflict. Refugees differ from ‘migrants,' an umbrella term that often covers refugees but also counts those seeking economic opportunity. The term ‘refugee’ yields international legal protections, which makes controversial which groups hold the title. Still, many legal scholars cite the link between poverty and conflict to argue that the line between refugee and migrant is thin and fluid.
One of the main reasons for the acceleration and the single largest driver of displacement is conflict in Syria. However, ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Libya (among others) contribute significantly.
Since last year, the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe has more than doubled. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the trend the European Union’s single greatest challenge today.
Why is this important?
This is a life-and-death matter for many. Refugees and migrants take huge risks in an effort to get to Europe. Many pay hard-earned thousands to smugglers for a seat in a rickety dinghy filled past capacity— and attempt to cross the Mediterranean. This summer alone, 2,500 people died on the journey.
Many European governments not only tolerate but exacerbate the dangers in an effort to keep refugees from their borders. For example, the UK cut funding for search-and-rescue operations that saved approximately 150,000 people in one year, saying the rescues encouraged more refugee crossings. Further, some governments have placed ads in foreign newspapers outlining difficult immigration regulations to prevent people from coming. The United States does not step in; the US has resettled only 9 percent of Syrian refugees referred to the nation by the UN refugee agency since 2011.
There are significant European political elements at play— in particular, the relationship between the Schengen Agreements and the Dublin Regulation. The Schengen Agreements allow for nearly unlimited migration between EU states; the Dublin Regulation requires refugees to remain in the EU state they first entered until their asylum is granted. The Schengen Agreements ensure new regulation only applies to non-EU migrants while the Dublin Regulation places further pressure on border control and tightening restrictions.
There are also economic concerns; the most common complaint about accepting refugees is cost. However, economists say these migrants would likely have a positive effect on many EU countries' economies.