Anatomy of an Exodus

How Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis unfolded.
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Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

The scenes are unforgettable. Men, women and children tightly packed onto flimsy boats and rubber dinghies, wearing neon orange life jackets that might not save them. Families huddled together as they fight the waves of the Mediterranean, then the roads of Europe, the cold and the creeping exhaustion. Thousands of people carrying their worldly possessions, walking highways or crowded onto buses, searching for better, safer lives. In 2015, wars, deadly insurgencies and crushing poverty drove the largest migration of people that the continent had seen since World War II, precipitating an ongoing crisis.

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The exodus began to reach crisis levels in 2015, as Syrians fleeing a seemingly endless war joined refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa seeking safety or opportunity in Europe. More than 220,000 arrived in October 2015 at its peak.

Monthly arrivals to Europe by sea

240k

2014

2015

180k

120k

60k

Jan

Apr

Jul

Oct

Jan

Apr

Jul

Oct

240k

2015

180k

120k

60k

2014

Jan

Apr

Jul

Oct

Greece became the main gateway to Europe in 2015. More than 8 out of every 10 people who landed on the continent crossed the sea from Turkey to the Greek islands.

Lesbos

507k

Greek

Islands

Turkey

Chios

121k

Greece

Samos

73k

Agathonisi

31k

Leros

32k

Kos

59k

Lesbos

507k

Greek

Islands

Turkey

Chios

121k

Samos

73k

Agathonisi

31k

Leros

32k

Kos

59k

*An additional 35,000 people arrived on other Greek islands. data: UNHCR; image: NASA
Other people traveled a more perilous route to reach Europe, from war-torn Libya to Italy.

Italy

Apulia

11k

Sardinia

5k

Campania

3k

Calabria

29k

Sicily

105k

Libya

Apulia

11k

Italy

Sardinia

5k

Campania

3k

Calabria

29k

Sicily

105k

Libya

*An additional 500 migrants and refugees arrived on the island of Liguria. data: UNHCR; image: NASA
A girl sits on the coast of the Greek island of Lesbos after arriving on a inflatable dinghy with a group of refugees in September 2015. (Thomas Campean/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Syrians escaping war made up nearly half of the more than 1 million refugees and migrants who landed in Greece and Italy in 2015.

Country of origin, 2015

Per 100 arrivals
  • 48 from Syria
  • 20 from Afghanistan
  • 9 from Iraq
  • 23 from other countries
While Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis mostly took the Turkey-to-Greece route, those from western and sub-Saharan Africa used the more dangerous route from Libya to Italy.

Country of origin, 2015

857,000* arrivals to Greece

Syria

56%

Afghanistan

24%

Iraq

10%

Other

10%

857,000* arrivals to Greece

Syria

56%

Afghanistan

24%

Iraq

10%

Other

10%

154,000 arrivals to Italy

Eritrea

25%

Nigeria

14%

Somalia

8%

Other

52%

154,000 arrivals to Italy

Eritrea

25%

Somalia

8%

Other

52%

Nigeria

14%

*Greece total includes 3,700 land arrivals, data: IOM
By the end of 2015, more than 3,700 people were believed to have died crossing the Mediterranean.

Mediterranean deaths, 2015

37 deaths  per 10,000 crossings
  • Total dead and missing: 3,771
  • Total crossings: 1,015,078
data: UNHCR
More than three times as many people were thought to have died on the treacherous Libya-to-Italy route in 2015, even though many more crossed from Turkey to Greece.

Italy

Greece

Turkey

Turkey-Greece route:

806 deaths

Libya-Italy route:

2,869 deaths

Libya

Italy

Greece

Turkey-Greece route:

806 deaths

Libya-Italy route:

2,869 deaths

Libya

data: IOM
Migrants sleeping in Lesbos port in September 2015. (Gus Palmer/Keo Films)
For those who survive the journey, a second obstacle has been the search for asylum. In August 2015, Germany said it was allowing Syrian refugees to stay — by not enforcing a European Union regulation that requires member-nations to send asylum seekers back to the EU country they first arrived in. Tens of thousands — not just Syrians — would head for Germany, some by train, some by bus, and many others by foot.
The EU received more than 2 million asylum applications between January 2015 and September 2016. Germany would get 700,000 more applications than any other EU nation. Hungary and Sweden received the second- and third-most applications, respectively.

Asylum applications, 2015–2016

2.2 million applications to the EU

Germany

47%

Hungary

9%

Sweden

8%

Other

36%

Germany

47%

Hungary

9%

Sweden

8%

Other

36%

From January 2015 through September 2016, Sweden, Germany and Malta granted asylum to the highest number of refugees relative to the size of their populations.

Granted asylum, 2015–2016

Per 10,000 population
  • Sweden: 71
  • Germany: 53
  • Malta: 53
  • Austria: 42
  • Denmark: 28
Syrians have had the most success winning asylum in the EU once their applications were looked at. Iraqis and Afghans have faced tougher odds.

Granted asylum rate, 2015–2016

Out of applications reviewed

98%

71%

57%

Iraqis

Syrians

Afghans

98%

71%

57%

Iraqis

Syrians

Afghans

As the crisis showed no signs of stopping, some nations along the trail responded with tighter border controls. Those countries highlighted below built fences. In response, refugees and migrants shifted to longer, sometimes riskier routes.

Germany

Austria

Hungary

Slovenia

Croatia

Serbia

Macedonia

Greece

Germany

Austria

Hungary

Slovenia

Croatia

Serbia

Macedonia

Greece

image: NASA
A migrant is photographed crossing a sunflower field near the Hungary-Serbia border in September 2015. (Gus Palmer/Keo Films)
While the EU grappled with the crisis, a controversial deal took shape between EU nations and Turkey. When the deal was finalized in March 2016, European Council President Donald Tusk said, “The days of irregular migration to Europe are over.”
In exchange for the promise of nearly $7 billion in aid for refugees and other concessions, Turkey agreed to take back refugees and migrants who had crossed to Greece.

Turkey-EU deal

  • Anyone arriving in Greece through irregular migrant routes…
  • …would be sent back. Asylum claims would be examined, but the EU deemed Turkey 'safe' to return to.
  • For every Syrian sent back to Turkey, a Syrian refugee would be resettled to the EU.
As borders within Europe closed and the Turkey-EU deal took effect, fewer refugees and migrants made the journey.

Monthly arrivals to Europe by sea

240k

2015

180k

2016

120k

Turkey-EU deal

60k

Jan

Apr

Jul

Oct

Jan

Apr

Jul

Oct

240k

2015

Turkey-EU

deal (2016)

180k

120k

2016

60k

Jan

Apr

Jul

Oct

Roughly 700,000 fewer people traveled from Turkey to Greece in 2016. A fraction of refugees and migrants continued to arrive in Europe by land — 35,000 in 2015 and 24,000 in 2016.

Arrivals to Europe by sea

1 million arrivals, 2015

Greece

84%

Italy

15%

Other

<1%

Greece

84%

Italy

15%

Other

<1%

350,000 arrivals, 2016

Greece

49%

Italy

49%

Other

2%

Greece

49%

Italy

49%

Other

2%

A young boy waits to be rescued from a rubber boat off the Libyan coast along with other refugees and migrants on Nov. 4, 2016. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)
But people continued using the Libya-to-Italy route, making 2016 the deadliest year yet for those crossing the Mediterranean.

Italy

Greece

Turkey

Turkey-Greece route:

429 deaths

Libya-Italy route:

4,403 deaths

Libya

Italy

Greece

Turkey-Greece route:

429 deaths

Libya-Italy route:

4,403 deaths

Libya

In 2015, there was a 1 in 269 chance of dying for those who crossed the Mediterranean. In 2016, they faced a 1 in 72 chance of death at sea.

Mediterranean deaths

2015:  37 deaths  per 10,000 crossings
  • Total dead and missing: 3,771
  • Total crossings: 1,015,078
2016:  140 deaths  per 10,000 crossings
  • Total dead and missing: 5,011
  • Total crossings: 358,923
Most of the factors that have fueled the exodus to Europe continue. Wars and insurgencies still rage in nations like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Persecution and poverty still affect millions across the Middle East and Africa. Meanwhile, border fences, diplomatic deals and stricter patrolling have created new obstacles for refugees and migrants. Those that reach Europe face longer, riskier journeys until they find safety.