It is not quite clear when Europeans woke up to the largest movement of refugees on their soil since the upheavals of World War II, but Sunday, August 16, may have been a decisive turning point. In a television interview that day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, returning from her summer vacation, said that the European Union’s single greatest challenge was no longer the Greek debt crisis. It was the wave after wave of Syrians and others now trying to enter Europe’s eastern and southern borders. It is “the next major European project,” she said. It “will preoccupy Europe much, much more than…the stability of the euro.”
In the capitals of Western Europe, Merkel’s words seemed to come as a surprise. And yet across a long corridor of countries, from the Anatolian coast to Greece on up to Hungary and Austria, for anyone who cared to notice there were Syrians waiting to pay human smugglers in back alleys of Turkish beach towns. They were clinging, in the darkness, to hopelessly unseaworthy dinghies in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas; crouching in groups, thirsty and sunbaked, in trash-strewn holding areas on the Greek island of Kos; clamoring to get on rusty trains in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; trudging, in irregular lines, with young children on their shoulders, through the forests of the Serbian–Hungarian border. They were emptying their last savings so they could again pay smugglers to be stuffed into the backs of trucks for a harrowing journey further north to Vienna or even to Munich.
In fact, the new wave had already begun in late spring, when hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans began crossing from Turkey to Greece and continuing, as best they could, into Central Europe. Though it was little noted at the time, by July, well over a thousand people were arriving every day in the Greek islands closest to Turkey, which were woefully ill-equipped to receive them.
International aid workers said that some holding areas had now become the most squalid in the world. At Kara Tepe, a makeshift reception center on the island of Lesbos, the International Rescue Committee, an emergency aid group working in forty countries, reported that there were just two showers for two thousand refugees; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described conditions as “shameful.”
Three days after Merkel’s comments, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière revealed that more than three quarters of a million Syrians and others were now expected to seek asylum in Germany alone this year—a four-fold increase from 2014. (The figure has since been revised to one million.) “It will be the largest influx in the country’s postwar history,” de Maizière said. Nor was this a temporary situation, he said. With a record 60 million people…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.