Refugee crisis explained

9 January 2017

What is the refugee crisis?

According to the UN, more than a million refugees had crossed into Europe by the end of 2015. The majority are fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The desperate plight of people seeking safety in Europe continues, and the UN reports that 361,712 refugees reached Europe by sea during 2016.

Whilst the number of refugees entering Europe fell in 2016, the number of casualties increased. In 2016, a staggering 5,022 people died or went missing whilst trying to enter Europe.

Following border closures and an agreement between the EU and Turkey in 2016, there are currently over 62,000 refugees stranded in Greece.

Donate to our Europe Refugee Crisis Appeal

Why are people looking to rebuild their lives in Europe?

The increased number of refugees and migrants seeking a new life in Europe is largely a consequence of humanitarian crises around the world. The UN estimates that almost half of the people who have crossed the Mediterranean originate from Syria, where a conflict has been raging for more than five years, while others began their journeys in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Somalia and Sudan.

Many of the refugees are able to carry little more than the clothes they are wearing on their journeys. With European governments struggling to provide adequate support, tens of thousands of people every day are in need of food, shelter, clean water and sanitation.

What routes do refugees take when they arrive in Greece?

Macedonia has now closed its border with Greece and the EU has signed a controversial deal with Turkey. This has meant that since midnight on 20 March 2016, anyone arriving on the Greek islands by boat is transferred to a closed detention centre where they can either apply for asylum or await return to Turkey.

Up until March 2016, after arriving by boat, refugees normally stayed in Lesbos for a day or two in order to register their arrival before travelling by boat to mainland Greece. From there most refugees travelled north towards Thessaloniki and then on to Idomeni on the border with Macedonia. After crossing into Macedonia, refugees continued the journey up towards Austria or Germany through Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.

The total number of arrivals to Lesbos has dropped considerably since April 2016 following the agreement between the EU and Turkey, and compared to 2015 and the first few months of 2016. However, there has been an increase in the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Italy, with over 180,000 migrants arriving in the country by boat in 2016.

What happens when the borders close?

In November 2015, countries in the Balkans announced they would only allow in refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In February 2016 Macedonia said it was halting access to Afghans, and in March 2016 the Macedonian Government closed its borders to all refugees and migrants. 

More than 62,000 people are stranded in Greece, staying in official and informal sites across the country, unable to continue their journey along the ‘Balkan route’. This led to over 10,000 refugees being stranded at Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border and thousands more at Piraeus Port, near Athens. Refugees at these locations have now been moved to refugee centers; refugees and migrants at Piraeus Port were transferred to Trikala, Oinofyta and Skaramangas sites.

There are concerns that closure of the border into Macedonia from Greece may result in refugees seeking alternative routes and means by which to continue their journeys north, many of which will be even more dangerous.

We are working with our local Greek partner, Caritas Hellas (Caritas Greece) to respond to the deteriorating situation of refugees stranded in Greece, including in Athens, the northern city of Thessaloniki, and on the island of Lesbos.

How is CAFOD responding to the refugee crisis in Europe?

We are a member of Caritas Internationalis - a confederation of Catholic aid agencies across the globe. Our European sister agencies in the Caritas network are on the frontline providing vital aid to refugees in almost every country in Europe. We are directly supporting Caritas Hellas, who have been providing food, water, shelter, weather-proof and warm clothing and sleeping bags to thousands of refugees. Read Abdalkarim from Syria's story

We have supported our partners responding on the front line with grants totalling £509,900. This has included £80,000 to Caritas Serbia (who launched an appeal to support refugees in Serbia, prior to the EU-Turkey agreement), £280,000 to Caritas Hellas, and £149,900 to Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Caritas Switzerland.

Caritas Hellas have reached thousands of refugees and will continue their life-saving assistance to refugees in 2017.

In 2016 Caritas Hellas helped refugees in Greece with the following support:

  • Implementing a cash based project in official refugee camps, including Skaramangas, Malakasa and Rafina. This allowed refugees to make dignified choices over how to spend their money to best meet their  needs and those of their families.
  • Providing nutritious food packages, chemical toilets and showers across camps.
  • Providing additional safe accommodation outside of camps for vulnerable refugees in Athens and Lesbos.
  • Setting up a Social Services Centre in Athens, including: a safe child friendly space that provides both lessons and activities; assistance with referrals to legal, medical, social services and schooling for children; psychosocial support; and cultural sharing activities to begin preparation for a long term stay in Greece.

Giovanna Reda, CAFOD’s Head of Humanitarian Programmes for Asia, Middle East and Latin America, is working with Caritas Hellas to support them in their emergency response:

“There is now less attention being paid to the refugee crisis, although the number of people fleeing their homes in Syria and nearby countries remains extremely high and over 62,000 refugees are living in limbo in Greece, facing an uncertain future. Caritas Hellas is continuing to distribute food packages to refugees and we are supporting vulnerable refugees with much needed safe and secure accommodation.”

Donate to our Refugee Crisis Appeal

What does the 'one in, one out' EU deal with Turkey mean for refugees?

In March 2016, at a meeting of European leaders in Brussels, an outline for a possible deal with Turkey was brokered. Turkey currently hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees, close to three million. The outlined proposal is to resettle one Syrian refugee in Europe for one Syrian refugee returned to Turkey from the Greek islands. As an incentive, Turkey will receive increased financial support, early visa-free travel and progress in EU membership negotiations.

The scheme only applies to Syrians. Afghans, Pakistanis and other nationalities not deemed entitled to European protection under the terms of this agreement, could be sent back to Turkey. But other groups, such as Iraqis, may have a better chance of being granted asylum in Europe.

In legal terms, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has said the proposal is likely to be unworkable because it contravenes basic aspects of the 1951 refugee convention. Under the terms of the convention, refugee cases should be assessed on an individual basis, rather than being subject to a blanket policy. Refugees should also not be returned to countries that are unable to guarantee their rights.

What is the view of Pope Francis on the refugee crisis?

On 16 April 2016 Pope Francis visited the Greek island of Lesbos in a show of solidarity for refugees and migrants. Addressing refugees whilst visiting Moria detention camp, Pope Francis said: “I am here to tell you, you are not alone… The Greek people have generously responded to your needs despite their own difficulties. Yes, so much more needs to be done but let us thank God that in our suffering he never leaves us alone."

“We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”

Pope Francis

On World Day of Migrants and Refugees (17 January 2016), Pope Francis pointed out that migration continues to grow worldwide as more and more refugees are fleeing from their homes. Although this can challenge traditional ways of life, Pope Francis urged people not to take the suffering of others for granted.

“Today, more than in the past,” he said, “the Gospel of mercy troubles our consciences.” He added that migration movements are now a structural reality, and the priority at this time must be to provide programmes which address the causes of migration and the changes it entails, including its effect on the makeup of societies and peoples.

Referring to the Bible (Matthew 25:40), Pope Francis reminds us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome God and that in the faces of others we see the face of Christ. As such, he stresses that the Church cannot fail to be inspired to action and to the realisation that the response to the Gospel is mercy. Read the message of his Holiness Pope Francis for World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2016.

What is the position of the Catholic Church in England and Wales on the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe?

CAFOD’s mandate from the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales is to support poor communities overseas. CSAN (the Catholic Social Action Network) is the social action arm of the Catholic Church for work in England and Wales. Their members support refugees who have already arrived in the UK, and they do advocacy work on poverty in the UK. Together, CAFOD and CSAN form Caritas England and Wales.

In a statement on the refugee crisis released on 9 September 2015, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales wrote:

“The refugee crisis is a huge challenge, not only in Europe and the Middle East, but in many others parts of the world where large numbers of refugees live deeply uncertain and perilous lives. Consequently, as a Catholic community, and as a country, we need to be committed to helping refugees over a long period. To sustain that effort we need moral imagination.

“We recognise that we can all contribute and play a part in helping to support the most vulnerable of refugees. Such assistance includes:

  • Prayer
  • Financial support
  • Time and professional skills (e.g. language teaching, legal help, advocacy)
  • Shelter and accommodation

“We can all be attentive to those who are vulnerable and newly arrived in our local communities and parishes. A warm welcome can be the most simple yet effective of gifts we can all offer.”

On 4 November 2015, Cardinal Vincent Nichols criticised the government’s response to the crisis. He said:

“Progress is slow, but the plight of refugees cannot wait. People’s generosity, in my view, far outstrips the response of our government.

“So much more needs to be done both in welcoming refugees here and across Europe to make the response to this crisis both better organized and monitored, thereby becoming more respectful of the dignity of those seeking help.

“As a member of the EU we should be playing our full part in this effort in Europe.”

Bishop Patrick Lynch, Chair of the Migration Policy Office for the Catholic Church in England and Wales, has urged governments to do more to help migrants and refugees, and to examine the root causes of the current crisis. He wrote:

“We must face up to the shared responsibility of making the world a better and safer environment to live in. We must examine as a matter of urgency the arms trade that fuels armed conflict and civil war, climate change, unjust economic policies, poverty and corruption as some of the underlying causes of this fundamental global trend. The safety of vulnerable women and children who may fall prey to smugglers and human traffickers is paramount and must be addressed.” Read the Church's full statement on the refugee crisis

Should the UK government accept more refugees?

CAFOD, alongside other agencies, has consistently called on the UK government to accept more refugees from Syria - including women and children at risk of sexual violence, disabled people, and people who need urgent medical and psychological support.

While we welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge to take 20,000 Syrian refugees under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme over the course of this Parliament, we are calling for real urgency in the government’s actions. Vulnerable Syrians don’t have 3-5 years to wait to be granted a humanitarian visa in the UK. We need the government to take steps to speed up the process of identifying and offering relocation to Syrians in the region and to ease the burden on neighbouring countries in the Middle East.

In January 2016 CAFOD, along with 25 other British NGOs, wrote a joint letter to the Prime Minister making the following points:

“We therefore join leading members of the legal community in endorsing the following four refugee principles and believe that, as a matter of urgency:

  • The UK should take a fair and proportionate share of refugees, both those already within the European Union and those still outside it.
  • Safe and legal routes to the UK, as well as to the European Union, need to be established.
  • Safe and legal routes within the European Union, including the UK, should be established.
  • There should be access to fair and thorough procedures to determine eligibility for international protection wherever it is sought.” 

In September 2016, world leaders met at two summits to discuss the refugee crisis. A large and varied group of organisations worked together to march in central London ahead of the summits. Dozens of CAFOD supporters held a service at St James's Church in Spanish Place to pray for refugees before joining the march.

What can I do to help?

Please join us in praying for refugees facing exploitation around the world

Please read and share our Lost Family Portraits stories 

Donate to the CAFOD Refugee Crisis Appeal to support our work with refugees arriving in Europe, and those caught up in the war in Syria who have fled to neighbouring countries

Find out more about the crisis - use our refugee crisis resources for children and young people

Help your local diocese support refugees

Offer shelter, time and skills to support refugees through one of the organisations listed by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference

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