Destination: Europe

Migration is fuelled by war, poverty and persecution – and increasingly by climate change.

At present the number of people seeking asylum and a new life in Europe is simply breathtaking. Not since the second world war have we seen so many people from so many different ethnic backgrounds on the move. The volume is so large, the problem so acute, that Finland – not traditionally a destination of choice for asylum seekers – is now having to react, and react quickly, to a sudden influx of migrants who desperately need accommodation, food, medical treatment and, above all, that precious feeling of safety.

What has sparked this movement and where are the asylum seekers principally coming from? Most of us are aware that the majority of those migrants arriving on Europe’s southern border are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, all countries ravaged by years of war that have included atrocities of the worst imaginable kind.

Syria has provided the majority of the asylum seekers currently arriving in Europe, fleeing the bloody tripartite civil war between the government of Bashar al-Assad, the rebels and the fighters of Islamic State. In 2011 Syria had a population of about 23 million. That figure is now believed to have fallen to about 17 million, with some four to five million living in neighbouring countries as refugees and a quarter of a million killed. By way of comparison, Finland’s total casualties from all causes in world war two were about 85 000 people. Syria, though predominantly an Arab and Sunni muslim country, is ethnically diverse. It is home to half a million Palestinians, some ten per cent of the population are Christian and almost ten per cent are Kurds.

The number of refugees taken in by Syria’s neighbours far outweighs anything seen In Europe. Turkey is now home to almost  two million Syrians, tiny Lebanon has provided shelter for over a million, while Jordan to the south has taken in over 600 000. The efforts of these countries to deal with such huge volumes of refugees has attracted little attention in the western media – evidently only when the problem turns up at our own borders does it become newsworthy.

War and oppression traditionally fuel migration, but there are also other factors in play. One is information; in the digital age it is easy to acquire and share information. Where to aim for, what route to take, the ability to keep in touch with family back home and fellow travellers en route – the cheap smartphone has undoubtedly facilitated people’s willingness to take on the hazardous journey. No wonder then that in the holiday resorts of western Turkey a rubber balloon to hold a smartphone is essential equipment for those planning the risky sea crossing to one of the Greek islands. The second is climate change; currently most asylum seekers are fleeing conflict in the Middle East and arriving via the western Balkan route. In future, as the planet’s temperature rises, more and more people from sub-Saharan Africa may attempt the crossing from Libya and other countries to Italy and Spain.

When talking of those arriving in Europe, it is important to remember that not all will be granted asylum and allowed to stay. In Germany about 45% of applications are granted, in Sweden about 77%, while in Hungary the figure is a mere 10%. Among asylum seekers Germany is by far the most popular destination – 43% of the 400 000 applications made during the period January-June 2015 in the EU area were in Germany. Sweden has accepted even more asylum seekers than Germany measured against the size of its own population, and Finland significantly less. While Finland was known to support the idea of sharing 120 000 asylum seekers currently in Greece Italy and Hungary between EU member states, it conspicuously and ignominiously abstained during the crucial vote.

Surely we have a humanitarian duty to assist in any way we can to alleviate the suffering of people forced to leave their homes due to violence and persecution? This help may take the form of money or expertise, since the ultimate goal must be to stabilize and rectify conditions in asylum seekers’ home countries. It may be concrete: a warm building, a clean bed, a chance to rest and recover. Many asylum seekers will return home, some will stay, and some will undoubtedly be joined here in Finland by family members who could not make the journey. The vast majority of those who stay will learn Finnish, adapt to their new circumstances and make a valuable contribution to our society. And that is exactly as it should be.

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