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Reflecting On A Year Of Europe's Migrant Crisis


More than 1 million migrants and refugees entered Europe this year. It's the biggest movement of people on the continent since the end of World War II. Reporter Joanna Kakissis has been witness to this great migration. We've aired her stories all year about asylum-seekers arriving on the Greek islands and trekking through fields on their way to wealthy countries in Western Europe. Joanna joins me now to bring us up to date. Good morning, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Carrie.

KAHN: What's the situation now - any letup to the arrivals now that the weather's colder?

KAKISSIS: No, I mean, the colder weather is discouraging some people. But there's still many bad things happening in the countries where the refugees and migrants are from. You know, the Russians are bombing Syria. There's continued conflict in Iraq. And there's a massive loss of hope in Afghanistan that's still fueling the exodus. European nations along the trail have been putting up a lot of barriers now. They're trying to sort out in a very ad hoc way who's a refugee and who's an economic migrant. So that means Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis are being allowed to cross, but many others are now stuck in Greece. And Greeks are starting to deport Pakistanis back to Pakistan, for example. And right now, they're in the process of trying to deport North Africans back to Turkey.

KAHN: I don't think anyone can forget that photo of the little boy who washed up dead on the Turkish beach. That really brought the crisis home to so many. And Turkey still remains the main point of departure for these asylum-seekers from the Middle East, South Asia and beyond, no?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, that's right. Many little boys and little girls have drowned since that little boy, Alan Kurdi. Nearly 3,700 people have actually drowned this year crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands. And 18 people, many of them little kids, again, just drowned on Christmas Eve trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos that's now the main gateway for refugees and migrants into Europe. It's hard to imagine because we're never on these boats of course, but, you know, you hear these stories. And it's such a scary ride. You know, the boats are full. They capsize so easily. And I remember the story of one dad from Syria. He treaded water for six hours and, like, held onto his 5-year-old son's life jacket with his teeth so the boy wouldn't drown. I mean, you hear stories like that over and over again. And the Greek coast guard, it's so overwhelmed, and so are the European border guards helping the Greeks. So volunteers from all over the world have been coming to Lesbos and other islands to help.

KAHN: This crisis has been such a huge challenge for Europe. We've seen these images of this river of humanity snaking its way across the continent. When you're on the scene, what does it feel like?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, you're right, you know, from a distance you do see this river of people walking through corn fields with their babies, getting stuck behind barbed wire fences, getting teargas. And it does look chaotic and biblical. And it's really hard to focus, you know, on each face and each story, each person - like the Iraqi geophysicist who left with the clothes on his back the day after Islamic State declared him an infidel, or the Syrian mathematician who saw her neighbors lying dead in the street after a Russian airstrike or the Afghan airport security worker threatened by the Taliban because women, you know, they're not supposed to work. I still remember this Eritrean hair dresser who had fled her country after the government started threatening her because a political opponent happened to walk into her salon. That was enough to put her on the government's radar. And she had to leave her 9-year-old daughter with relatives in Sudan because she was terrified the child wouldn't survive this very long and dangerous journey through deserts and the sea to Europe. And I remember when she was talking about her daughter, you know, she had just gotten off the boat on Lesbos. And she was wet. And she was - you know, she had just survived this terrifying journey. And she just collapsed and sobbing. She just started trembling in my arms because she said, I've got to bring her to me. And I don't know when that's going to happen.

KAHN: What about the prospects that European leaders will get control of this crisis in 2016?

KAKISSIS: You know, I don't think it looks very good at this point. The EU is giving some aid to Greece. But nations, you know, on the refugee trail, they're putting up fences. And they're bickering about how many refugees they can accept. And you've got these nationalist anti-immigrant parties; they're gaining strength all over Europe. This has really casted doubt on the dream of a united Europe without borders. And that's what the big dream of Europe has been since World War II.

KAHN: Joanna Kakissis in Athens, thank you for sharing this dramatic human story with us this year.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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