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Refugees are smuggled through fields and forests in an attempt to evade the Hungarian police close to the Serbian border on Sept. 8, 2015 in Roszke, Hungary.
Dan Kitwood—Getty Images

In recent weeks, chaos at border crossings and train stations, squalid conditions in makeshift refugee camps and a heartbreaking photograph of a drowned Syrian toddler have all helped bring Europe’s refugee crisis into the global spotlight. According to the UNHCR, more than 380,000 migrants and refugees have landed on Europe’s southern shores so far this year, up from 216,000 arrivals in the whole of 2014. They are fleeing persecution, poverty and conflicts that rage beyond the continent’s borders, but not all manage to reach safety – this year alone, 2,850 people have drowned in the Mediterranean. That hasn’t stopped people making desperate bids to reach Europe though. Here’s what to know about why the continent is facing one of its toughest challenges in decades.

1. What’s the difference between refugee and migrant?

The U.N. defines an international migrant as “any person who changes his or her country of usual residence.” Migrants can move for a variety of reasons and the term ‘migrant’ is an umbrella one, encompassing both asylum-seekers and economic migrants – people moving specifically to improve their living conditions or job opportunities.

Refugees, by contrast, are guaranteed a particular protection under international law. A refugee is recognized as a person fleeing conflict or persecution on the basis on race, religion, national, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, a country is legally obliged to shelter a refugee and is not allowed to expel or return a refugee to somewhere where their life or freedom would be threatened.

An asylum-seeker refers to a person who has applied for asylum but whose refugee status has not yet been determined.

Read more: The U.N.’s original refugees

2. Where are the migrants and refugees coming from?

A number of spiraling crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Ukraine and Iraq have partly driven the crisis, but more than half of all refugees worldwide in 2014 came from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Since Syria’s civil war began in 2011, more than 4 million Syrians have sought shelter in neighboring countries and another 7.6 million have been forced from their homes but remain displaced within Syria. An increase in attacks by President Bashar Assad’s forces and the growth of ISIS are fueling the movement, but people are partly fleeing now because it’s become clear that the conflict is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. The same is true for other modern conflicts that have been dragging on – over half of the world’s refugees have been in exile for more than five years.

Read more: Stranded migrants turn Budapest into choke point of refugee crisis

3. So why is the crisis just hitting Europe now?

It’s due to a combination of factors. The developing countries who are currently hosting the vast majority of refugees from Syria are reaching breaking point. Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, sheltering 3.6 million Syrian refugees between them, are overwhelmed, and international humanitarian funding is falling far short of the need. Many would rather attempt the dangerous journey to Europe than subsist in impoverished, overcrowded refugee camps.

The increased numbers have also been encouraged by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pledge to Syrians that if they could manage to reach Germany, they could apply for asylum there – effectively suspending an E.U. law that requires the first country an asylum seeker arrives in to be responsible for documenting and processing his or her application, and resettling them. The rule has placed a disproportionate burden on the southern countries of Italy, Greece and Malta, who see the most arrivals from the Mediterranean.

There’s also a self-perpetuating element to the crisis; people who reach Europe successfully encourage friends and families to join them, and several Facebook pages in Arabic provide information for people making the same desperate bids to reach the continent. Increased international media coverage may also be playing a part in the surge of migrants as rumors of impending caps on refugee numbers, or brief gaps in border control along various frontiers encourages people to try to cross while they can.

But along with the waves of Syrian refugees are many people fleeing turmoil or poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Lots of them would have previously found safety or jobs in Libya but that country’s worsening instability has propelled even more people to try their chances on the Mediterranean. This movement of people is unlikely to slow until winter arrives, making that journey even more difficult and dangerous than it already is.

Read more: Why refugees from old wars are only rushing to Europe now

4. How are European countries responding to the crisis?

With tensions running high, Europe’s leaders remain divided on how best to respond to the crisis. Germany has said it will spend $6.6 billion to cope with the 800,000 migrants and refugees it expects to welcome by the end of 2015. The country had already accepted 99,000 Syrians by July 2015, while Sweden has taken in 65,000.

On Wednesday, the European Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker proposed national quotas to relocate an additional 120,000 asylum-seekers across Europe, on top of previous plans announced in May to redistribute 40,000 people. Juncker said tackling the crisis was “a matter of humanity and human dignity. It is true that Europe cannot house all the misery in the world. But we have to put it into perspective…This still represents just 0.11% of the EU population. In Lebanon refugees represent 25% of the population.”

The new proposal, which could be ratified on Sept.14 at a special meeting of the interior ministers from the 28 E.U. member states, hopes to move 60% of the refugees currently in Italy, Greece and Hungary to Germany, France and Spain. France has committed to taking 24,000 migrants over two years and Spain said Wednesday it would take in an extra 15,000 people according to quotas.

Not everyone has welcomed the plans, with Poland and Romania opposing the idea – though Poland agreed to take in more refugees. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka of the Czech Republic – where officials recently came under fire for numbering migrants with indelible ink – said compulsory quotas were “not a good solution”. Slovakia, which has only taken 61 Syrians this year, recently announced it would only take in Christian migrants and Prime Minister Robert Fico called Juncker’s proposals “irrational”. Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister last week made a series of inflammatory remarks, including arguing that the influx of migrants from the Middle East poses a threat to Europe’s Christian identity. The country is focusing on building a barbed-wire fence along its border with Serbia.

Read more: A fractured Europe scrambles to respond to spiraling migrant crisis

5. What can the U.S. do?

The U.S. has resettled only 1,554 Syrian refugees since the start of the civil war in 2011, out of the more than 4 million who have fled. International organizations have been trying to persuade the federal government to take in more, but the White House has yet to make a formal commitment to doing so. A State Department spokesman told TIME that the U.S. is likely to admit 1,500 – 1,800 Syrian refugees in total by October and expects to see an increase in that number in the following fiscal year.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday the U.S. would commit to increasing the number of refugees it would take from 70,000 to 75,000. Some of them would be from Syria, but he did not give any specific numbers. Kerry’s predecessor, the Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton, has called for a “concerted global effort” to ease the crisis.

Read next: Here’s how you can help migrants in Europe

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Write to Naina Bajekal at

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