The world is in the midst of the largest immigration crisis since World War Two. How is it being handled?

A migrant prays by the sea in Ventimiglia, at the Italian-French border, Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Police at Italy's Mediterranean border with France forcibly removed a few dozen African migrants who have been camping out for days in hopes of continuing their journeys farther north, a violent scene Italy is using to show that Europe needs to do something about the migrant crisis. (Luca Zennaro/ANSA via AP)

A migrant prays at the border between Italy and France, 16 June 2015. (Luca Zennaro/ANSA via AP)

This article is part of a News-Decoder series of “decoders” that explain crucial background to big issues. For more decoders, click here.
Why is this important right now?

The world is grappling with the largest crisis of displaced people since World War Two.

One in every 122 people in the world is displaced, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), creating a record number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people.


Migrant – A person who voluntarily moves from one place to another. Economic migrant refers to someone who moves to improve their quality of life.
Internally displaced person – A person who is forced to leave their home but remains within the borders of their country.
Asylum seeker – A person who has asked another country for protection under international law but has not yet had their request approved.
Refugee – A person who has had to leave their country of origin due to war, persecution or human rights abuses, and has been granted asylum by another country.

To flee persecution, war, poverty and human rights violations, millions of people have attempted perilous journeys across sea and land. For many of these people, the end goal is Northern Europe or the United States—regions with well-established welfare systems and economic opportunities.

The international community has struggled to reach a consensus on how to respond, and the term “migrant crisis”—popular with the media—can cause confusion.

Migration is a voluntary movement, while many of today’s displaced people are asylum seekers or refugees who were forced to leave their home. This is an important distinction. See the Decoder box to the right for a clarification of these terms.

What’s going on? 

At the end of 2014, 59.5 million people around the world were forcibly displaced — either refugees, internally displaced or asylum-seekers, according to the UNHCR.

Three countries — Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia — accounted for more than half of the 19.5 million refugees worldwide.

Europe is experiencing a wrenching influx of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and Africans fleeing conflict are among the thousands who have attempted to cross into Southern Europe, especially Italy and Greece.

The route from Libya to Italy, popular among West Africans and sub-Saharans, is particularly dangerous. In the first half of 2015, more than 2,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean.

The Mexico-Texas border is the world’s largest migration corridor. Mexicans and Central Americans, including thousands of unaccompanied children, try to get past U.S. border control every day. As of 2014, 52% of the 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States were Mexican.

In 2014, an estimated 58,000 people attempted to cross the Andaman Sea in Southeast Asia. They are mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims, persecuted by the majority Buddhist-state of Myanmar, and Bangladeshi economic migrants. They hope to reach Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

How did we get here?

The roots of the immigration crises lie in war, repression and poverty. In the past five years, 15 conflicts have erupted, including eight in Africa and three in the Middle East, according to the UNHCR.

Starting in 2011, the Arab Spring generated widespread instability in the Middle East and North Africa, including civil war in Syria.

In Central America, many flee gang violence and persecution, while sub-Saharan Africans try to escape war, poverty, corruption and dictatorships.

How have developed nations responded?

EU states accept asylum applications to varying degrees. In 2014 the EU launched Operation Triton to stop immigrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. Critics claim that the EU has focused more on keeping these people out than helping them.

Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have failed to coordinate a policy for displaced people. Often immigrants are left in boats for indefinite periods and are sometimes refused landing. In some cases traffickers force people into labor in return for sea passage.

Securing the Mexico-Texas border is a hot talking point for U.S. politicians. Republicans generally favor a crackdown on immigrants.

What are proposed solutions?

  • Expand maritime patrols: Allocate more money to prevent deaths.
  • Stop traffickers: Immigrants can pay traffickers thousands of dollars to secure passage to their desired destination and are often subject to violations.
  • Reform immigration laws to ensure the rights of immigrants.
  • Work for peace: Some argue that with increased humanitarian intervention, the international community could stop wars and persecution in conflict regions, preventing the mass displacement of people in the first place.

Despite horrifying journeys, many immigrants face rejection in foreign countries.

But with wars raging and poverty persisting in many parts of the world, the flow of people in search of a better life shows no sign of abating.

(This article has been updated to clarify the distinction between migrants on the one hand and refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons on the other.)

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