Last week, the body of a drowned Syrian toddler washed up on the shore of a beach in Turkey, and was documented in a photograph that has been breaking hearts around the world and highlighting the plight of refugees. Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi died along with his mother, brother and nine others when their boat capsized en route to Greece. They were only 12 of more than 2,600 who have perished in the Mediterranean this year. The rising death toll reflects the high number of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East.
In 2015 alone, 350,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea, radically exceeding 2014’s record 219,000.
Who are these people, and what makes them desperate enough to risk their lives and the lives of their children?
Approximately 93,000 are Syrian, fleeing a devastating civil war and the rise of ISIS, while 32,400 are from Afghanistan, and 25,700 are from Eritrea. Thousands more come from Albania, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan. Most of those coming by sea arrive in Greece or Italy, neither of which can effectively patrol their lengthy coastlines.
These people arrive needing food, water, clothing, medical care and shelter. It’s a massive humanitarian, logistical and bureaucratic crisis, and authorities are overwhelmed.
Hungary, an entry point to the EU’s free-travel Schengen Zone, has become a focal point for the challenges facing both refugees and the European governments trying to cope with them. More than a thousand people were trapped for days in a train station near Budapest as the government determined whether they would be allowed to travel to Austria. Many set out on the hundred-mile journey to the border on foot, although later, some were picked up by buses. Meanwhile, Hungary has built a fence along its Serbian border in an effort to halt the flow.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said that Germany’s attractive immigration policies created the current situation, and that Hungary is just trying to enforce the rules. He also said on Saturday that Europe must control its borders or face “tens of millions” more refugees.
“The supply of immigrants is inexhaustible. If we let everyone in, it will destroy Europe,” Orban said.
As officials scramble, ordinary citizens across Europe are supporting the travelers in a variety of moving displays of spontaneous generosity. Hungarians gave out strollers to families making the eight-hour trek to the border. At train stations in Germany and Austria, new arrivals have been greeted warmly and police have had to actually turn donations away. A German couple has launched a nonprofit called “Refugees Welcome,” allowing people to share their homes with those in need.
“Every parish, religious community, every convent, every pilgrimage site in Europe should take in a family, beginning with my diocese in Rome,” Pope Francis said in his Sunday Angelus address. He went on to say, “Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers fleeing death [as] victims of war and hunger who are hoping to start a new life, the gospel calls on us and asks us to be the neighbor of the smallest and the most abandoned, to give them concrete hope.”
Beyond the immediate crisis, there is cause for optimism. Newsweek quoted one Syrian on his way to Germany, who doubtlessly expressed the feelings of thousands of his countrymen.
“I want to live in a country that will give me security, freedom and a future for my family,” the refugee said.
Immigration to Europe is his best opportunity for that kind of life.
The new arrivals may also bring economic benefits to their host nations. Rising life expectancy and falling birthrates have led to a demographic phenomenon known as “the graying of Europe.” Total populations are falling, and the percentage of the population that is of working age is declining dramatically as “baby boomers” retire. Most of the migrants are working-age adults with significant numbers of children, and many already have valuable skills. They could fill in the gaps in the workforce, allowing them independence and dignity while contributing to the economy. Increased population means increased demand for all manner of goods and services, stimulating all sectors of the economy.
This situation may even be the best hope for the future of the Middle East. The region is notoriously turbulent and unpredictable, but it is not unfathomable that the weary children currently staggering off trains in Austria and Germany may one day return to the homelands they have fled, bringing with them education, economic resources and Western ideas about freedom, opportunity and tolerance. Wherever they go, now or in the future, people of good will around the world wish them well.