Here's what you need to know about the European migrant crisis in under five minutes

September 10, 2015
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The first thing you need to know is this name: Aylan Kurdi. It belonged to a three-year-old boy from Syria who washed up on a Turkish beach last Wednesday, and who was one of the 2,500 refugees drowned this summer attempting to make the dangerous Mediterranean crossing into Europe.

It was Aylan - photographed with his cheek still resting on the sand - who brought the current refugee crisis in Europe crashing home for people all around the world. Within hours, the image had gone viral, accompanied by the hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik (Turkish for “humanity washed ashore”).

In that photograph, and in Aylan’s story, the world is looking at its largest refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War.

So why this happening, and what is Australia doing to help?

The crisis

Last year, UNHCR recorded that 59.5 million people had been forcibly displaced by war – the highest number since WWII. Today, that number is likely to be even greater, as conflict continues to rage across the Middle East and North Africa.

Of that number, Syrians are the largest refugee group, as their homeland has been torn apart by the advance of ISIL, as well as civil war between the al-Assad regime and rebel forces. From a population roughly equal to Australia’s 23 million, 250,000 people have been killed since conflict broke out in 2011, and four-million forced to flee their country.

But conflict in the region is widespread and long-running: from Sudan to Iraq, desperate people are now arriving at Europe’s door. In France, they live in slums around Paris, waiting to cross the channel into Britain for welfare support. To Austria and Germany, they came by train, thousands piling into carriages and crowding stations.

Between 2000 and 2014, as many as 22,000 refugees drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

What Australia is doing

Yesterday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott waded into the crisis. In a change of heart from his usual hard line on immigration, he pledged to permanently resettle 12,000 Syrian refugees.

The new intake is on top of our existing 13,750 humanitarian quota, with priority given to women, children and families from minority groups (but not to Christian refugees, as several Coalition MPs were hoping).

Labor had already called for an intake of 10,000 earlier in the week, though The Greens had their sights set on something closer to 20,000.

The government has also committed 44 million dollars to assist those remaining behind in refugee camps, mostly in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Those brought back to Australia will be offered housing, education and counselling, as well as a handy little booklet on Aussie behaviour. There are now calls for that support to be offered to asylum seekers in our detention centres, as well.

What the world is doing

In Europe, Germany has been doing most of the welcoming. The country is accepting more refugees than any other UN nation, with around 800,000 expected by the end of the year. Finland, Sweden and Italy have also accepted more in recent months, and both the US and the UK are planning to up their intakes over the next year or two.

Hungary, meanwhile, is busy walling off its Serbian border, having already taken in 140,000 refugees this year. But the majority of refugees in the Middle East are now in Turkey, including 1.7 million Syrians from across the border.

While the conflict may have no real end in sight, it’s clear that the world has been woken up this month. Unhelpful words like “migrants” and “economic refugees” have been pushed further back from the conversation, and meaningful announcements – and money – placed in their stead. Borders have been cracked open wider.

And that wakeup call was a photograph of a little boy from Syria, who looked for a moment as if he might be sleeping: our humanity washed up on shore.

Sherryn Groch

Sherryn is studying journalism at RMIT University. She enjoys writing short stories, frolicking in unsecured meadows and sometimes tweets at @Sherryn_G.

Image: Freedom House, Flickr Creative Commons license