A 2-year-old boy, reportedly named Khalid, became the first confirmed death of a refugee trying to reach Europe in 2016 on Saturday. He drowned after a rubber dinghy carrying 40 passengers crashed into rocks in windy weather near the Greek island of Agathonisi.
More than 3,800 refugees died, most of them by drowning, trying to reach Europe in 2015. And the human tide shows little sign of letting up in the new year: The Greek coast guard says it has already rescued more than 200 people in four incidents so far this January.
Four months ago, the death of another young boy, Alan Kurdi, sparked international sympathy and prompted several countries to agree to admit more refugees. But today, the political context is different. As I wrote last week, even Germany and Sweden, the most open to refugees of any countries in Europe, are starting to change their tune and enact new restrictions on arrivals. Sweden followed up this week with new restrictions that require train, bus, and boat passengers to present valid IDs in order to enter the country from southern neighbor Denmark. Hours later Denmark enacted new controls along its southern border with Germany. While supposedly temporary, these moves, along with the recent reintroduction of border checks in countries including Germany, Austria, France, and Belgium, suggest the system of passport-free travel throughout the EU’s 26 countries—one of the union’s most cherished political accomplishments—is under real threat.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also under increasing pressure, with one of her key political allies demanding a cap of 200,000 refugees per year, less than a fifth of the number who registered in Germany in 2015. (It should be noted that this reduced number is still twice the most aspirational goals of the Obama administration.)
Back in September, the EU reached a plan—over the staunch objections of most of its Eastern member countries—to distribute 160,000 refugees throughout the union, but only about 150 have been relocated so far. At this point, the union’s political structure seems too weak to address the crisis. That’s not just because of the sheer magnitude of the refugee problem. Other factors weakening the EU include the ongoing financial crisis in several southern European states, growing tensions with Russia, Britain’s threat to leave the union entirely, and the rise of euroskeptic parties on the right and left.
The European project is likely to be pushed near the breaking point in 2016. That’s bad news for the overall peace and security of the continent. But those continuing to flee the carnage in Syria and Iraq, risking death and brutal exploitation, will bear the highest costs.