The Long Road to Safety

By Laura Secorun Palet


Because, much to Europe’s chagrin, the refugee crisis is not going away anytime soon.

It’s one of the largest mass migrations of people in history, a veritable exodus of people displaced from their homes in the Middle East and Africa. After much grappling and over the objections of some member-states, the EU has decided to relocate 120,000 refugees across the continent. There is discord on both sides, with some arguing that’s too many, and many others asking whether the Band-Aid is big enough. After all, conflict in Syria and Iraq continues, unabated, and some 8,000 refugees arrive in Europe every day, according to the U.N. Nearly half a million have already arrived. And thousands die or disappear trying to reach Europe’s shores; they are not counted. 

All of which is to say that the political wrestling will continue, and that the refugees, likely, will continue to come. These photographs by Pete Kiehart, a former staffer at the San Francisco Chronicle who is now based in Eastern Europe, attest to the drama of the journey — its scrum and discomfort, as well as its strange vistas. Kiehart reports police officers are directing migrants to circumvent border control, for instance, and there are some more mundane consequences, like strains on local services such as trash collection. But mostly, he’s been struck by the length of the migrants’ journeys. “They’ve all been traveling for so long,” Kiehart tells OZY — from Syria, of course, but also African countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan. His photographs appear here with some of OZY’s coverage of the crisis. 

Europe’s Gatekeeper

So far, the burden of the refugee crisis has fallen almost solely on the shoulders of Southern European countries like Greece, Spain and Italy, where most boats arrive. One of Europe’s gatekeepers is Giusy Nicolini, mayor of the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which regularly welcomes 2,500 arrivals a day. She has buried countless unidentified men, women and children and has turned her little rock in the middle of the Mediterranean into a save haven for all refugees. “The thing with human rights is that you can’t make exceptions,” she told me when I visited in the spring. Read more here.

When Italy’s Migrants Move In

Yet as the number of refugees continues to grow, Northern Europe has no choice but to get involved. And some are welcoming scared newcomers with open arms, offering food, shelter and moral support for refugees. In Italy, host families have begun to welcome the displaced into their homes. And the mayor of the small German town of Goslar is actually begging nearby cities and federal authorities to send refugees his way, in a bid to remediate the town’s shortage of manpower and excess of vacant apartments. Read more here

Refugees: Jihadi Pipeline? 

Still, “welcome all” solutions are still rare, as most European countries appear reluctant to resettle refugees, arguing that the “human flood” is too costly post-recession, or the threat of jihadis entering the country is too high. The same argument has been made in the U.S. After the Obama administration announced that it would increase its admission of refugees from Syria, Republican Rep. Michael McCaul called the idea “a federally funded jihadi pipeline.” Last week, the United States announced it would up the number of refugees it accepts from around the world, from 70,000 to 100,000. But so far, it’s accepted only 1,500 refugees from Syria. Read more here

The Human Trafficker

So while politicians try to play hot potato with the issue and humanitarian workers rush to build makeshift refugee centers across Europe, the only ones benefiting from this crisis are the criminal networks exploiting refugees’ desperation. Human traffickers like Ahmad, 35, are flourishing. This Syrian ex-doctor now crams hundreds of men, women and children into boats and sends them on a journey through the world’s deadliest border, the Mediterranean. He earns as much as $1,400 per refugee, whether or not they make it to the other shore — which they often don’t. Read more here.