Refugee crisis in Europe - your questions answered

11 March 2016

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What has happened?

According to the UN over one million refugees and migrants risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe during 2015. More than 3,400 people died while making the dangerous sea crossing. The winter conditions have not stopped the desperate plight of people seeking safety in Europe, as the UN reports that 184,913 refugees have reached Europe by sea since the start of 2016. 

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 more than half of the people who have crossed the Mediterranean originate from Syria, where a conflict has been raging for the last five years, while others began their journeys in Afghanistan, Iraq, 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, warm and weather-proof clothing, and clean water and sanitation.

What routes do refugees take when they arrive on the island of Lesbos?

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, the majority of refugees continued the journey up towards Austria or Germany through Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.

However, 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.

What happens when the borders are closed?

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

More than 53,000 people are stranded in Greece, staying in hastily built camps across the country, unable to continue their journey along the ‘Balkan route’.  Over 10,000 refugees are stranded at Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border, their route to northern Europe now closed.

There is concern that closure of the border into Macedonia from Greece is likely to 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 on the Greek-Macedonian border and elsewhere in the country, including in Athens and on the islands of Lesbos and Chios.

How is CAFOD responding to the refugee humanitarian 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 Greece and Caritas Serbia, who are providing food, water, shelter, weather-proof and warm clothing and sleeping bags to thousands of refugees. Read Abdalkarim's story

In March 2016 we pledged £100,000 to Caritas Hellas to support in scaling up their emergency aid response, which will also include installing basic chemical toilets and shower facilities at Idomeni. In Athens at Piraeus Port, Caritas Hellas will also be able to reach more refugees by providing food for people who are anxiously waiting the next stage on their onward journey.

Philippe Mougin, CAFOD’s Europe Emergency Programme Manager is working with Caritas Hellas to support them to scale up their emergency response:

“Sadly, the numbers of vulnerable families seeking refuge continues to grow. Caritas Hellas is continuing to distribute food packages at Idomeni and we have increased the number of aid workers on the ground, so that we can reach more people with vital aid.”

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

In March, 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 would only apply 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.

Why do refugees in Turkey take the dangerous journey to Europe, leaving Turkey’s relative safety behind?

The main reason behind the flow of refugees to European countries, aside from the appeal of the standard of life on the continent, is the lack of legal measures by Turkey to integrate the refugees. Syrian “guests” struggle to get an education for their children, according to UN Refugee agency UNHCR, only 14 per cent of urban child refugees have access to education.

Syrian refugees were denied entry to the formal job market; however, the Turkish government has reversed this decision, and will allow registered Syrian refugees to apply for work permits. But, there is still a large unregistered refugee population who will find jobs as illegal workers, and who are often exploited by their employers, who demand extra work hours for no additional pay.

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.”

On World Day of Migrants and Refugees (Sunday 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 urges people not to take the suffering of others for granted.

“Today, more than in the past,” he says, “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 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 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 full statement

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.” 

What can I do to help?

Send a message of hope to refugees

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 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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