In recent weeks, chaos at border crossings and train stations, squalid conditions in makeshift refugee camps and a heartbreaking photograph of a drowned Syrian toddler have all helped bring Europe’s refugee crisis into the global spotlight. According to the UNHCR, more than 380,000 migrants and refugees have landed on Europe’s southern shores so far this year, up from 216,000 arrivals in the whole of 2014. They are fleeing persecution, poverty and conflicts that rage beyond the continent’s borders, but not all manage to reach safety – this year alone, 2,850 people have drowned in the Mediterranean. That hasn’t stopped people making desperate bids to reach Europe though. Here’s what to know about why the continent is facing one of its toughest challenges in decades.
1. What’s the difference between refugee and migrant?
The U.N. defines an international migrant as “any person who changes his or her country of usual residence.” Migrants can move for a variety of reasons and the term ‘migrant’ is an umbrella one, encompassing both asylum-seekers and economic migrants – people moving specifically to improve their living conditions or job opportunities.
Refugees, by contrast, are guaranteed a particular protection under international law. A refugee is recognized as a person fleeing conflict or persecution on the basis on race, religion, national, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, a country is legally obliged to shelter a refugee and is not allowed to expel or return a refugee to somewhere where their life or freedom would be threatened.
An asylum-seeker refers to a person who has applied for asylum but whose refugee status has not yet been determined.
Read more: The U.N.’s original refugees
2. Where are the migrants and refugees coming from?
A number of spiraling crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Ukraine and Iraq have partly driven the crisis, but more than half of all refugees worldwide in 2014 came from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.
Since Syria’s civil war began in 2011, more than 4 million Syrians have sought shelter in neighboring countries and another 7.6 million have been forced from their homes but remain displaced within Syria. An increase in attacks by President Bashar Assad’s forces and the growth of ISIS are fueling the movement, but people are partly fleeing now because it’s become clear that the conflict is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. The same is true for other modern conflicts that have been dragging on – over half of the world’s refugees have been in exile for more than five years.
Read more: Stranded migrants turn Budapest into choke point of refugee crisis