1. MOST REFUGEES NEVER LEAVE THEIR COUNTRIES
To see the images of boats and trucks, you might think that millions of people are pouring out of their war-torn countries into Europe. But most never leave their countries, and only a few move internationally.
There are about 60 million people around the world who have been displaced – that is, forced to leave their homes due to conflict and unable, for the moment, to return. By far the largest group, two-thirds, are "internally displaced persons" – that is, they do not leave their country. The second largest, many millions in size, are those living in camps across the borders of their country – of the four million Syrian refugees and IDPs, 1.9 million are camped in Turkey, 1.1 million in Lebanon, 630,000 in Jordan. These camp refugees do not generally try to come to the West (except a handful who are sponsored by agencies).
By comparison, the total number of Syrians who have sought refuge in the West since 2011 is estimated at just more than 300,000. Likewise, half a million Eritreans are encamped in adjoining African countries; tens of thousands have come to the West.
There are about 15 conflicts around the world that are responsible for all the world's refugees; only a handful of those conflicts produce any significant numbers of refugees who leave their region and attempt to seek refuge in the West.
2. REFUGEES ARE A RECURRING CRISIS, NOT A CONSTANT ONE
International refugee flows have not been constantly increasing; in fact, they have generally dropped in number over the last several decades, but experience short-lived peaks during major international crises.
After the years that followed the Second World War (which remain the largest refugee crisis in modern history, after tens of millions of Europeans became refugees), the largest refugee peak in the West occurred in the 1990s, when three million fled the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Then, throughout the 2000s, refugee numbers declined to their lowest in history.
The new peak began in 2011, after the Arab revolutions sent people fleeing the ensuing conflicts and the open southern Mediterranean shore allowed refugees to enter Europe from conflicts in places such as Eritrea. That peak abated in 2012-13, then picked up dramatically in 2014-15, when hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled the escalating war there.
The Syrian refugee flood still has not reached the levels of the Balkan flood of the 1990s, although it could do so. But history shows that refugee numbers will sink back to historic lows once the conflict has stabilized.
3. MANY COUNTRIES SEE REFUGEES ONLY DURING CONFLICTS
Refugees tend to come and go. Germany, shown here, is typical of Western countries (though it receives far more refugees than any other). It experienced negligible numbers of refugee claimants during the 2000s, but large spikes in the 1990s and in the post-2011 years.
The 1990 Balkan refugee wave provoked a political crisis unlike any being experienced today: So fearful were Germans of a permanent tide of refugees that they amended their constitution, which had previously guaranteed citizenship to anyone seeking refugee status. It seemed to many that the Balkan wars would last forever, and the millions of refugees would be permanent.
Those worries proved unfounded. About two-thirds of the 1990s refugees returned to Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo; the third who stayed became well-integrated citizens of Germany. All evidence suggests that the Syrian refugees are in a similar situation, with similar long-term intentions.
DAN KITWOOD/GETTY IMAGES
4. MOST REFUGEES ARRIVE BY LAND, NOT BOAT
Boat migrants make headlines – in part because they often are killed attempting a crossing – but they do not represent the majority of refugees. In Canada and the United States, the number of refugee claimants arriving by sea is negligibly small; almost all arrive at airports.
In Europe this year, walking has become the most popular way of entry. The number of migrants and refugee claimants who enter the 28-country European Union by foot, crossing Turkey, Greece and the Balkans – what is known as the "Western Balkan route" – is now almost as high as all sea passages combined.
MOHAMED BEN KHALIFA/ASSOCIATED PRESS
5. MOST BOAT PEOPLE AREN'T SYRIAN, AND OFTEN AREN'T REFUGEES
The people who cross the Mediterranean in illegal, dangerous boats are often called "migrants" or "refugees," but in fact the distinction is often hard to make – and large numbers of them don't come from countries that would automatically qualify them as a refugee under the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951, which all Western countries subscribe to.
During the first three months of 2015, the nationalities most often encountered in the most popular Mediterranean route (from Libya and Tunisia to Italy and its outlying islands) were Gambian, Senegalese and Somali – none of them countries with active conflicts that would make people fleeing them automatic refugees.
Crossing the Mediterranean in an overpacked boat costs upwards of $3,000 (U.S.) per person, so the most desperate victims of war or poverty have no chance of making the crossing. Many are people seeking a better life for their families, drawing on networks of people from the same region already living in Europe.
But the process of coming to Europe this way – which typically involves a brutal cross-Sahara walk to Libya, followed by months working in exploitative jobs in Tripoli, then at least one attempt at the extremely dangerous sea crossing – often leaves migrants as wounded and traumatized as any war refugee. Likewise, anyone seeking refuge from a conflict, is, naturally, also an economic migrant: They need to find a place with employment and an economy to provide stability for their families.
So to characterize the Mediterranean boat people as simply "refugees" or alternatively as "economic migrants" is misleading. Most of them historically have not been legitimate refugees, but all of them are both victims of traumatic mistreatment and people seeking economic stability.
6. WESTERN COUNTRIES SEE RELATIVELY FEW REFUGEES
Of the countries that receive the most refugees, no European or North American country even makes the top 10. Western countries, even today, are seeing a small and manageable number of refugees. Countries experiencing refugee numbers large enough to strain their resources include Turkey, Lebanon and Pakistan; Turkey has effectively built an entire large city of hundreds of thousands of people, complete with a school system and public utilities, populated entirely with Syrians.
Many refugees are forced to settle in the nearest available country. Those who settle further afield are no less genuine as refugees: It is best when refugees seek not the closest country, but the safest country with a population of people from the same background and an economic need for newcomers.
MATTHIAS SCHRADER/ASSOCIATED PRESS
7. REFUGEES ARE VERY UNEVENLY DISTRIBUTED IN THE WEST
Almost six out of 10 refugees in Europe today are settling in Sweden or Germany – despite the fact that all Western countries are equally obliged to accept refugees. Germany, with 80 million people, receives more than 100,000 refugee claims per year and accepts more than 70,000 refugees per year, or almost half a million since the current crisis began in 2011. Sweden, with fewer than 10 million people, took 234,000 refugee applications between 2010 and 2014, and accepted most.
Map: Volume of asylum claims in Europe and select industrialized countries, 2010-2014
The United States comes second in the Western world, taking about 100,000 asylum applications per year – but its population is four times the size of Germany's.
Canada, with 35 million people, takes around 10,000 to 14,000 refugees per year, most of them sponsored by Canadian families. Ottawa has pledged to settle 11,300 Syrian refugees, most from persecuted religious minorities, by the end of 2017.
8. TOUGHER POLICING DOESN'T REDUCE NUMBERS, BUT KILLS MORE
Until the end of 2014, the European Union handled the Mediterranean influx through a program known as Mare Nostrum, which attempted to rescue boat people and bring the victims to Europe.
In October, 2014, amid outcry over the Syrian numbers, that program was cancelled, and replaced with a tougher program known as Operation Triton, in which the search-and-rescue vessels and airplanes were largely replaced with border-protection operations.
The results were disquieting: The new program did nothing to reduce the refugee numbers – they remained largely the same in the first months of 2015 as they were under the old program in the first months of 2014.
But it did cause migrant deaths at sea to increase dramatically: From 17 in the first four months of 2014 to 900 in the first four months of 2015. In other words, the death rate was 54 times higher but the migrant flows weren't deterred.
What has reduced boat-migrant numbers is the opening of legal channels for trans-Mediterranean migration, as Spain did in the 2000s. Even if only a few hundred people are admitted through legal, visa-driven entry regimes, countries have found that the existence of such programs causes the numbers of illegal migrants to fall to negligible numbers.