The image of a Syrian toddler's lifeless body washed up on a Mediterranean beach sent shock waves around the world Thursday, bringing into sharp focus the migrant crisis that has engulfed Europe.
Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi died along with his 5-year-old brother and their mother when their small rubber boat capsized as it headed for Greece.
Aylan was just one of 2,500 people who have died so far this year in their quest for a safe haven. The United Nations says more than 300,000 migrants have set out from North Africa and the Middle East for Europe so far this year — 40 percent more than in all of last year.
The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees says this is the worst crisis since World War II.
Why the crisis?
A refuge from escalating regional conflicts is the major catalyst behind the recent acceleration of migrants. More than 60 million people have been displaced by conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Ukraine and elsewhere, and the violence is expected to drive hundreds of thousands more to seek asylum this year and next. Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Nigeria and other countries also are wracked by war or insurgency.
Refugees from the civil war in Syria, in its fifth year, constitute the largest share of the displaced, and together with Afghans and Somalis they constitute more than half of the new refugees counted last year.
The surge of the militants of Islamic State in Iraq has displaced 3 million people since January 2014.
Where are they going?
Europe is the closest safe and accessible region from the Mideast and Africa. Some Greek islands that have become landing zones for migrant boats are just a few kilometers from launching points in nations such as Turkey and Libya. More than 230,000 people have arrived in Greece and about 100,000 in Italy so far this year.
Migrants also are flocking to nations close to the conflicts. More than 1 million Syrian refugees reside in Lebanon and another million are in refugee camps in Turkey.
Many migrants keep moving north because European nations have a better track record of accepting and providing them with aid, as well as having opportunities for work and greater security for the future.
European countries disagree about how to handle the crisis. Southern countries like Greece and Italy want other countries to take them in. Some European countries have been opening their doors. Germany, Europe’s largest and wealthiest state, has taken the lead in welcoming migrants. Some 800,000 are expected to arrive there by the end of the year.
Sweden has welcomed far more as a percentage of its size, with 230,000 arrivals adding more than 2 percent to its population.
But European Union states struggling with high unemployment and recession are loath to add to their burdens by taking in impoverished refugees.
Hungary has built a wall with its southern neighbor Serbia and vowed to deploy troops there. Authorities in Greece have looked the other way as migrants slip out of detention camps and head north for better prospects.
The State Department said Thursday that the U.S. had stepped up efforts to process Syrian refugees seeking admission to the United States.
Spokesman Mark Toner said the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. since the start of the country’s crisis in 2011 is expected to reach about 1,800 by the end of October. He also said the U.S. has provided more than $4 billion in humanitarian assistance since the start of the Syrian crisis.
Migrants or refugees?
While the terms "migrants" and "refugees" are often used interchangeably, to those making the perilous journey to Europe they mean a very different future.
A refugee is defined as a person fleeing a country fearing certain death or persecution as a result of religion, race, opinions or nationality. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, negotiated after World War II, refugees are entitled to basic protections. They are able to apply for political asylum or another protected status. They also are afforded basic rights and protections, such as the right to shelter or legal assistance.
On the other hand, a migrant is a person who moves from place to place, usually to get work or seek economic prospects. Migrants are not accorded the same rights and shelters as refugees.
Countries are free to deport migrants who arrive without legal papers.