Factors Contributing to the Escalating European Refugee Crisis

Brianna McNiven, Junior Editor

18 November, 2018

Overhead shot of refugees in a crowded boat

Overhead shot of refugees in a crowded boat


One of the largest global issues in contemporary times has been the refugee crisis of which has reached and affected all corners of the world. The magnitude of this unprecedented crisis has reached a record high, however it is being exacerbated further due to the increasing amount of countries who are imposing restrictive border policies towards refugees. The border policies being enacted are a product of numerous factors, including the rise of xenophobic attitudes within societies, as well as the lack of burden sharing among countries. Moreover, the European continent has been largely impacted by this refugee crisis, and this is simply due to the geographic proximity of the continent to the many countries with large outflows of individuals seeking refuge, resulting in European countries being central to the issue.

At the end of 2016, the number of migrants reached a record high of 65.6 million people being forced to abandon their home country due to conflict or persecution. From this number, 22.5 million are considered refugees by the United Nations, and are under the age of 18. Throughout Europe many countries in the last few years have been either forced to close their borders or haven chosen to voluntarily. This is often due to their inability to provide resources for refugees while adequately providing for their own citizens as well, additionally other reasons driven by ethnocentrism are also present. Germany is an example of a country that has been largely affected by the refugee crisis, with more than one million people seeking protection being admitted into the country in 2015 and 2016. Despite being one of Europe’s most important host countries and providing protection to numerous refugees, Germany has begun to impose restrictive border policies.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, (who has recently announced she will step down in 2021), previously employed policies that were rather generous towards refugees and migrants. For example, she temporarily suspended an EU law in 2015 which dictated that refugees would be required to return to the first country they entered upon arrival. However, in 2018, the laws and policies that have been enacted regarding immigration and refugees have become much more restrictive, and are seeming to be based in xenophobic attitudes of which are being selected in public policies. This is seen through the increase in border controls that have been introduced and are causing the number of people who are looking to settle in Germany to decrease immensely. Additional policies have been enacted regarding the rights of refugees, such as in 2016 the German government suspended the right for migrants with subsidiary status to be reunited with their families. These policies are all reflective of the current attitudes within society that segments of the German population are advocating for, as they have become increasingly resentful of the refugee population, and those opinions are being acted on by politicians and reflected in public policy.

In regard to the increasingly xenophobic sentiments in German society, a study was conducted that compared photos taken by journalists that were published in CNN International, and Der Spiegel (German news outlet) and examined the photos that were published by each. It was determined that CNN International published photos that emphasize the humanitarian aspect of global suffering, whereas ‘law and control’ and ‘xenophobia’ were emphasized by Der Spiegel. However, it is important to note that Der Spiegel is only one German News Source, and many others do not utilize xenophobic sentiments in their news, however the point here is that it is an evolving issue within Germany.

An additional factor contributing to restrictive border policies becoming increasingly imposed is the lack of burden sharing among European countries. When refugee influxes occur, states find themselves with few choices. One popular option is to let in a smaller number of refugees and then close their borders to others while claiming the country does not have the capacity to provide for larger amounts of people. This has been seen in Germany, where large amounts of migrants were granted refugee status in 2016. However, it is now evident that the government as well as society are moving toward tightening policies around refugee admissions. The lack of burden sharing has been a large component contributing to the escalation of the refugee crisis, as fewer and fewer countries are allowing refugees across their borders, thus forcing those who are not granted admittance to seek protection elsewhere. This causes larger influxes of refugees at one country’s border, placing an enormous burden on their resources leading to the inevitable closure of borders, as states simply cannot provide for those seeking asylum.

When evaluating the refugee crisis and its impact on global politics, it is evident that it is an increasing problem that many countries and international institutions have attempted to mitigate, however have been unsuccessful. It is an issue prevalent all over the world, although due to geographic proximity, European countries often feel the brunt of the crisis with mass influxes of refugees at their borders. Despite the aid provided by institutions such as the United Nations, as well as economic aid from other countries, restrictive border policies are continuing to be enacted in the name of security, deriving from xenophobic sentiments. The refugee crisis is truly a global issue and requires global efforts to assist in mitigating it, however with the restrictive policies being imposed by many countries it is becoming a very delicate and dangerous situation and this needs to be recognized.   

While it is evident that there are numerous reasons for many European countries to begin imposing new restrictive laws, it is unfortunate that there has been a lack of cooperation among countries to address these issues. It is likely that the crisis will prevail, as the issue of burden sharing persists as well as xenophobic sentiments are manifesting within numerous societies in Europe. However, with the shifts in politics such as Angela Merkel stepping down in 2020 and the European Parliament election in 2019, it will be interesting to see if anything will change, hopefully for the better.