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Crisis solved? Why more refugees are arriving in Europe this year

The International Organization for Migration says that despite border closings, the number of refugees arriving has increased 17 percent since last year.

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A woman holds the hand of a toddler walking on a railway track at the northern Greek border station of Idomeni in March. The International Organization for Migration says that while refugees have become less visible in places like Idomeni following a slew of border closings, arrivals have increased 17 percent compared to last year.

Vadim Ghirda/AP/File

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A year ago, as hundreds of thousands of refugees fled war-torn conditions in their home countries and headed for southeastern Europe, the region’s borders were flooded, drawing global attention.

But while aid groups say the refugee crisis has since worsened in terms of numbers, the closing of several borders and the signing of a controversial deal between the European Union and Turkey has made refugees – and the conditions they face – far less visible.

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In Idomeni, Greece, on the country’s border with Macedonia, areas once filled with tents of refugees hoping for news from home have been replaced by summer crops, Reuters reports. But according to data from the International Organization for Migration, arrivals have increased 17 percent since last year, sparked by an early-year spike in Greece.

“By outsourcing the responsibility to Turkey and to Greece, European governments are basically saying 'we have solved the crisis because we don’t see it, and we can't smell it and we can't hear it,” Gauri van Gulik, deputy Europe director at Amnesty International, told Reuters.

In Greece, the migrant deal between Turkey and the EU signed in March has led to arrivals declining, but an estimated 57,000 migrants were still stuck in the country as of Aug. 8, Reuters reports. 

The IOM also found that deaths among those hoping to get to Europe are up more than 15 percent, particularly due to drowning.

In April, the Council of Europe, the region’s leading human rights body, condemned the deal, saying its progress in relocating refugees from Greece was “painfully slow.” As of March, only 937 out of a promised 160,000 had gained homes, the group said.

Since January, Macedonia has shuttered its border with Greece, Austria has sharply curtailed asylum claims at its southern border and some Western Balkan countries have introduced restrictions on Afghans, who make up about a third of all asylum seekers in Europe, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

While migrants have become less visible in some areas due to closing borders, aid groups say the underlying causes that have fueled the refugee crisis are far from over.

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“This is not a blip," David Miliband, a former British foreign minister who now heads the International Rescue Committee, told Reuters.

"The forces that are driving more and more people from their homes – weak states, big tumults within the Islamic world, a divided international system.... None of these things are likely to abate soon,” Mr. Miliband added.

Even in countries that have welcomed refugees, like Sweden, many camping sites that placed asylum seekers in vacant beach cottages in the winter have relinquished the shelter to tourists during the busy summer season.

“It's unbelievable how [Sweden’s] Migration Agency treats asylum seekers," Sally Karlsson, a resident in a tourist town near Råå where asylum seekers are also having to vacate camping cottages, told the Monitor in May.

At that point, 42 camping sites housing nearly 2,000 refugees had ended their contracts with the Migration Agency, which had secured the lodging during the off-season after its own residences were filled.

"We're talking about people who have settled and integrated well and whose children have built up relationships with teachers. Now they have make place for tourists and start over somewhere else. Treating people like this is incredibly inhumane,” Ms. Karlsson said.

Amid rising tensions in Germany, a survey released in early August found that the majority of Germans say the country should scrap the deal with Turkey.  Fifty-two percent were in favor of terminating the deal, compared to 35 percent who wanted it to continue, according to the Emnid survey for the Germany weekly Bild am Sonntag.

To combat misconceptions as Germany struggles to integrate refugees, some German cities, such as Nuremberg, have also begun training “ambassadors for diversity,” the Monitor reported.

But with the IOM saying arrivals and fatalities as of July have outpaced numbers from last year, human rights groups are skeptical about European promises.

“Its absolutely incredible because if you think about the panic this caused last year and the incentive there was to really get some policy changes in place, nothing has happened,” Ms. van Gulik of Amnesty International told Reuters. “The crisis is as big as ever, and as yet unsolved by governments.”