"There is something fundamentally wrong when a Syrian family with women and children that has fled this dramatic conflict in Syria needs to take a boat with high risk of drowning to get to Europe," said Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister, on Monday, urging European nations to share the burden.
But is all of Europe prepared?
Some of the European Union’s poorest members say no. On the edge of the EU’s borders, countries are experiencing a massive influx of refugees looking for an entry into Europe and are taking steps to ease the burden of the surge – steps which refugee advocates warn could worsen the problem across Europe more broadly.
Two of the hardest hit countries are Hungary and Bulgaria, which have received 18,000 and 8,800 asylum seekers respectively in 2013 – several times more than the one to three thousand refugees they see in an average year.
Poland is also projected to experience a rise of about 70 percent this year, after numbers climbed by 80 percent in 2012. And while Romania’s asylum numbers slightly declined this year with a total of 1,300 until October, it too has seen a spike in Syrian refugees.
The figures for these atypical host countries are still lower than the EU’s most popular destinations, including Sweden, France, and Germany, where between 43,000 and 85,000 refugees arrived this year.
But while these Western countries also experienced a rise in 2013, it is far from the radical increase witnessed by some members on the EU’s periphery.
Across the union, asylum applications in 2013 are on track to increase by about a quarter compared to last year, according to UNHCR statistics.
Bulgaria and Hungary in particular have become increasingly attractive access points to Europe. For countries with per capita GDPs well below the EU average, the influx has at times overwhelmed authorities.
Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest nation, has urged the EU to provide assistance. It received 6.4 million euros ($8.8 million) from the EU’s Refugee Fund and 2 million euros ($2.7 million) in aid from the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Some EU officials have discussed relocating Syrian refugees – who represent 60 percent of asylum claims in Bulgaria – to other member states to ease the pressure on struggling countries but so far no plan has been agreed to.
Capacity at Bulgaria’s ill-equipped asylum centers has been exhausted and new centers are being opened.
“The sanitary conditions of the most reception centers are not sufficient,” said the State Agency for Refugees in an email. The agency also added the refugees lack “the necessary hygiene habits” for living in such a confined space, causing “lot of inconvenience and concerns” for its staff.
Hungary was also forced to open temporary facilities this summer, at the height of its influx.
In July, the Hungarian government introduced new legislation allowing asylum seekers to be detained, hoping this would decrease the number of “unfounded” claims from people authorities consider economic migrants.
István Ördög, director of the Office of Immigration and Nationality, says the move was meant to “combat the abuse of the asylum system.” He says claims have indeed declined since the summer but overall numbers are still higher than average.
Bulgaria has also proposed legislation that would make detaining refugees easier, drawing fears it could lead to systematic detention.
“If adopted, it will drag down Bulgaria’s refugee and asylum law well below compliance with international and EU norms and standards,” said Roland Weil, UNHCR’s representative in Bulgaria, last week.
The government is also constructing a fence along the border with Turkey, the main entry point for Syrians. It is a controversial strategy, as refugees could be prevented or deterred from entering the country. Authorities have already said they have turned away migrants in an attempt to secure the border.
'They were not prepared'
Governments argue increased security measures and harsher detention regimes are necessary to keep track of migrants, but they can also place a heavier burden on neighboring countries that become alternative settlements.
Greece has tightened its immigration policing methods, causing some refugees to seek asylum elsewhere. Refugees living in a camp in Bicske, west of Budapest, told The Christian Science Monitor that the heavy police presence in Greece was one of the reasons they left the country and came to Hungary.
Ali, from Iraq, says he experienced “too much police in Greece” and decided to head north after less than four months. He says he just wanted to “find country that gives me papers.” His asylum request in Hungary was accepted.
Human rights advocates argue detention should not be used as a deterrent by countries struggling to manage an increase in refugees.
Bulgaria should be able to handle its migrant numbers, according to the UNHCR. “Eight thousand people are not really a catastrophe. We are seeing so many more people in other countries,” says UNHCR Regional Representative for Central Europe Montserrat Feixas Vihe.
However, the country was poorly prepared for the impact of the Syrian crisis. “They had no experience of managing large numbers of refugees. Maybe because they did not see the signs on time, and so when the people arrived, they were not prepared.”