Migrants arriving in Passau, Germany, in November 2015 | Photo: Picture-alliance
Migrants arriving in Passau, Germany, in November 2015 | Photo: Picture-alliance

A tragic shipwreck in the Mediterranean, a lifeless boy on a beach, the fickleness of politicians, borders opening and shutting -- these are some of the enduring images of the summer and fall 2015 in Europe in the context of migration. We look at six pivotal moments that have defined the so-called migrant crisis and have been engraved in our collective memory.

Funeral of 13 who were among 800 dead in a shipwreck off Sicily 2015On the night of April 18, 2015, a small blue trawler coming from Libya capsizes and sinks in the Strait of Sicily under the horrified eyes of the crew of the "King Jacob", a Portuguese freighter sent to help. 

Only some 30 survive among the more than 800 migrants who had been crammed on board the trawler. The tragedy, likely caused by overcrowding and incorrect maneuvers, is one of the worst in recent decades in the Mediterranean.

The scale of the disaster and the chilling accounts of survivors provoke a wave of outrage and push the European Union to strengthen its presence off the Libyan coast. In 2016, an Italian court sentences the Tunisian captain of the trawler to 18 years in jail.

In March of this year, UN migration agency IOM estimates that the death toll of migrants who had tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea since 2014 has passed the "grim milestone" of 20,000 deaths.

Alan Kurdi, the human face of migrants' plightAlan Kurdis father and aunt have been campaigning for refugees for years  Photo picture-alliancedpaM Ldemann

Wearing a red T-shirt and blue shorts, the small lifeless body of a three-year-old Syrian boy lies on a Turkish beach. He drowned with at least four other people, including his mother, his five-year-old brother and two others on their rubber boat as they tried to reach a Greek island.

The heartbreaking photographs of the toddler's body washed ashore in Turkey quickly make global headlines, prompting international responses and sparking a flurry of donations for asylum seekers. Alan Kurdi’s death also becomes a global symbol of the plight of refugees at sea.

"It was as though the migrants' crisis, so often told through numbers, had found a human face," news agency AFP wrote.

In total, more than a million people reach Europe via the sea in the year of 2015. Among them, more than 850,000 arrive on Greek shores, the majority are Syrians fleeing their war-torn country.

In 2019, German NGO Sea-Eye named its search and rescue (SAR) vessel Alan Kurdi after the Syrian boy. It has since helped save thousands of lives in the central Mediterranean.

In March this year, a Turkish court sentenced three suspects to 125 years in prison each for the death of Alan Kurdi.

Pulitzer-winning photograph

At dawn on August 15, 2015, German photographer Daniel Etter is waiting on the shores of Kos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea mere kilometers away from mainland Turkey. Soon, a family arrives on the island on a sinking boat.

"Locals, who were there that morning, pulled them on the beach," Etter wrote on Twitter last month. "A visibly shaken man left the boat. As soon as he reached safety, his emotions took over and he gathered his family around him."

That man was Iraqi Laith Majid. In September 2015, it was discovered that the family was actually from Iraq, not Syria as initially reported. "Given the hierarchy imposed on refugees back then, their smuggler told them to pose for Syrian," Etter said.

The photograph was part of the New York Times entry that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in the Breaking News Photography category.

'We will manage this' ('Wir schaffen das')

In 2015 Chancellor Merkel said Wir schaffen das - and it looks like she was right  Photo picture-alliancedpaBernd von JutrczenkaIt's August 31, 2015. After visiting a camp for newly arrived refugees, German chancellor Angela Merkel attends a press conference, where she utters a simple sentence about taking in refugees that is now famous: "Wir schaffen das!" ("We will manage this!").

Merkel was addressing the fact that hundreds of thousands of refugees were expected to reach Germany that year.

Fearing a humanitarian crisis, she soon after took a stand and announced an open-door policy. Her decision is a landmark moment. In the year that follows, more than a million people claim asylum in Germany.

Dubbed "Mama Merkel", the chancellor is hailed by Syrian asylum seekers and praised by those who believe she has saved Europe's honor. But her decision also provokes a backlash in Germany and other European countries and helps to give rise to far-right parties including the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Since 2015, the number of asylum applications has fallen steadily, with Syria remaining the main country of origin for asylum seekers and refugees in Germany.

Today, Germany is the country with the fifth highest refugee population worldwide, according to UN refugee agency UNHCR. By the end of 2019, there were 1.36 million people with protection status in Germany

Between 2015 and 2020, the German government took many steps to reduce the number of asylum seekers, including new laws that made getting asylum more difficult like supporting the EU-Turkey deal.

While many of them are still struggling, the overall trend for refugees and migrants in Germany is positive: 10% more refugees are employed today than in 2015.

First-ever relocation within the EU

Part of the first group of Eritrean asylum seekers wait to board a plane of Italys Finance police heading for Sweden at Romes Ciampino Airport on October 9 2015  Photo picture alliancedpaSome 20 Eritreans, smiling under the flashes of photographers' cameras, board a plane in Rome. It's October 9, 2015. The men and women, rescued off the Libyan coast and taken to Italy, are now headed for Sweden.

The transfer initiates a "contentious European Union relocation program meant to help the union's front-line countries deal with the largest movement of refugees on the Continent since World War II," the New York Times writes pithily that day.

Italy and Greece are the first entry points into the then-28-nation bloc for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

At the airport send-off ceremony, Italian and EU politicians proudly repeat that in the next two years, 40,000 refugees from Eritrea, Iraq and Syria would be resettled from Italy throughout member state countries, helping share Italy's burden.

Two months later, the result is meager. A mere 133 people of the 40,000 were relocated from Italy. Some countries drag their feet, others such as Poland and Hungary refuse to carry it out, despite its being compulsory.

In September 2015, a month before the scene at the Rome airport, European countries agree to a "relocation" plan to redistribute some 160,000 asylum seekers from the bloc's two main points of entry by September 2017. After officials found that fewer people were eligible under the scheme that first expected, the number was later revised to just under 100,000.

Ultimately, though, only 33,000 took part in the scheme across EU member states. "The plan, supposed to embody Europe's solidarity, becomes a symbol of division," AFP wrote.

Notorious Balkan route

A Syrian migrant walking along the Balkan route  Photo ANSAAs hundreds of thousands of migrants come into Europe in 2015, one of the most common ways for them to arrive in the EU is through the so-called Balkan route. Their path typically begins in Turkey and then wound through either Bulgaria or Greece. The migrants then make their way further north, eventually reaching Slovenia or Hungary on the path towards countries like Germany.

As spring 2016 approaches, however, the situation changes radically. Countries along the route, from Macedonia, to Croatia and Slovenia all the way to Austria, where a corridor allowing migrants to pass had been in place since summer 2015, all announce that their borders are shut. However, refugees frustrated by the closing of borders still manage to go along the route.

And on March 18, the European Union and Ankara reached a controversial accord ("EU-Turkey deal") to address "irregular migration" from Turkey into the European Union. Under the agreement, Turkey would be obligated to take back migrants who pass through its territory to prevent them from crossing into Greece illegally.

For every "irregular" migrant returned to Turkey, another migrant approved for asylum in the EU would be resettled in one of the bloc's 28 member states. In addition, the EU gave Turkey €6 billion ($6.6 billion) in financial aid to assist with the country's large refugee population, which is currently above 3.5 million.

Between 2016 and March 2020, Germany accepted almost 10,000 migrants and asylum seekers under the accord.

The outcome is a drastic drop in the number of arrivals in Europe, but tens of thousands of migrants find themselves stranded in Greece, raising fears of a humanitarian crisis and Erdogan using their situation for political gain. And Europeans remain divided over key refugee and asylum policies. Numerous initiatives such as a binding distribution quota for migrants have failed.

This article is based on a feature from AFP.


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