Seven-year-old Syrian refugee Wael Alsaleh only just started second grade in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, and he still doesn’t understand much of what his peers say. But the minute his teacher announces, in Greek, that it’s time to color, he reaches for the paper and markers, and launches into his favorite image of a tall, colorful house surrounded by green grass, trees and a smiling sun. He’s probably drawn 50 of those houses since he started school in October, says his teacher, Maria Liberi. “It’s not complicated,” she says when asked to interpret his drawings. “I think he’s really longing for a home.”
Wael’s family has been on the move for the past five years, ever since his mother scooped him out of bed one night to escape a bombing raid on his village outside of Deir ez-Zor in 2012. They hopscotched through refugee camps and temporary shelters scattered across Syria, Turkey and Greece. Since August, the family of seven has been living in a three-bedroom apartment located across the street from the school and paid for by the United Nations’ refugee body, UNHCR. For the first time, Wael, a pensive introvert whose quiet calm visibly separates him from his more rambunctious siblings, can go to school. He has a lot of catching up to do, says his teacher, “but he’s bright and determined. Give him stability and he will do just fine.”
Stability is not in Wael’s future. After nearly two years of struggling to find a foothold in Europe, his parents have just found out that they will be granted asylum in Greece. But what should be cause for celebration is rapidly turning into trepidation. A lawyer has told them that once they get their papers, they will be treated like any other Greek resident. They will have to move out of their UNHCR-funded apartment, and they will no longer be eligible for the monthly €550 ($646) in asylum-seeker benefits that have sustained the family for the past several months. Wael’s father Minhel Alsaleh, 39, an illiterate farmer who can barely speak Greek, will have to find a job in a nation with a 21% unemployment rate. “We have no choice,” he says. “We will have to leave.” Leave for where? “Germany. Where there are jobs. We will become refugees again.”
The fact that a family of Syrian refugees who waited nearly two years to get asylum in Europe is now contemplating uprooting itself once again raises the urgent question of just how much progress the E.U. has made in managing the influx of migrants that have arrived on its shores since 2015. That year, Europe witnessed chaotic scenes of thousands of migrants coming ashore on beaches and massing at unsecured borders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, incensed by the images of starving migrants living in squalid camps on European soil, pledged that any Syrian who could make it to Germany could apply for asylum there, effectively reversing a long-standing E.U. regulation that refugees must claim asylum in the country of first arrival. The resulting surge of migrants crossing Eastern Europe strained border controls, prompting fears that Islamist militants could use the turmoil as cover to slip, unnoticed, into European capitals.
The number of new arrivals did not itself pose an existential threat; even at its peak in 2015, when a million people landed on Greek and Italian shores, the desperate newcomers numbered less than half a percent of the E.U.’s population. But populist movements capitalized on the demographic panic, and anti-migrant rhetoric became their rallying cry. The crisis played into the Brexit vote in 2016 and coursed through elections in Holland, France and Germany this year. Even when Europe’s new nativists didn’t gain power in legislative elections, they succeeded in pushing centrist parties to the right. As a result, nationalistic causes are entering the mainstream, and threatening the very identity of an E.U. forged from the ashes of a war over competing nationalisms. “This crisis has, in its way, become Europe’s Sept. 11,” says Ivan Krastev, a Vienna-based political scientist and the author of After Europe, which explores the future of the union, “in that it has fundamentally altered how Europe’s citizens look at the world.”
The crisis is not over. Although the numbers of asylum seekers reaching Europe have slowed to a fraction of the 2015 arrivals through a combination of deterrence measures, detentions and deportations, more than 163,000 migrants and asylum seekers still arrived by sea in 2017. More than 3,000 died in the attempt. The E.U. as a whole has yet to come up with a solution. Over two years after the image of a drowned Syrian toddler on a Turkish beach ricocheted around the world as an indelible reminder of the cost of human desperation, migrants are still dying in the Mediterranean. Some 200,000 asylum seekers and migrants are still warehoused in abysmal conditions in Greece and Italy, awaiting resolution for their cases. If European leaders can’t overcome this seemingly intractable problem, the 28-nation bloc is likely to face an even greater crisis in the near future, says Gerald Knaus, founder of the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative, a policy-analysis organization. “If the E.U. cannot make a success of this, then all the other steps it is taking to manage migration are doomed.”
In early 2016, three families joined tens of thousands of others crossing the Aegean Sea in one of the biggest refugee movements in modern history. For the past 18 months, TIME has been following them as part of its Finding Home project, as each brought a new child into the world. At the time of their departure from the Turkish coast, the families had hopes of joining at least half a million other refugees from Syria who had found safety in northern Europe. Instead, they and 60,000 other migrants were trapped in Greece when E.U. leaders shut the land borders in an attempt to put a stop to the irregular flow of migrants northward.
The families were housed in Greek refugee camps, waiting to be sent to a secondary European country under the quota system introduced in September 2015. To alleviate the burden on Greece, a country already in dire economic straits, the E.U. planned to distribute the asylum seekers among member states, rather than enforce the historic rules that said migrants could apply for asylum only in the member state where they first set foot.
The “relocation program,” as it was called, was a stopgap measure that proved hugely unpopular, among both the refugees and the countries tasked with taking them in. Asylum seekers had no say in where they might be sent, and the application process took up to two years. Meanwhile, the migrants were in a constant state of upheaval as the Greek government shuttled them through a series of camps and temporary shelters in search of adequate housing.
As well as being unpopular, the program has been ineffective. By the time it formally concluded in September, only 21,531 asylum seekers had been relocated, even though 63,000 spaces had been promised by member states through the quota system. (A similar program for arrivals in Italy saw only 10,844 placements out of 35,000 spots.) “It would be a struggle to find anyone who would claim the E.U. relocation program is working on any level,” says Katy Long, a writer and researcher on migration issues and an honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh. The E.U. blames issues of eligibility for the shortfall.
All three of the Finding Home families were eventually relocated, but the results differed wildly from the intended outcomes. Throughout the year, TIME has reported on their struggles to navigate Europe’s shambolic decisionmaking on refugee affairs.
The first of the three families, Nourelhuda Altallaa, 25, Yousef Alarsan, 27, and their infant daughter Rahaf, were relocated to Germany in July, but even after spending six months in temporary housing, they are still awaiting a final decision on whether they will be allowed to stay, and if so, for how long. After throwing open its doors to refugees in 2015, Germany is now seeing a political backlash. Merkel is struggling to form a coalition in the wake of elections that brought a populist far-right party–Alternative for Germany (AfD)–to Parliament for the first time in Germany’s postwar history, largely on the back of an anti-immigrant campaign. Talks have broken down over whether to put a cap on the number of refugees Germany will take in, and how long they will be able to stay. Even members of Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, are considering parts of the AfD’s call to repatriate Syrian refugees, saying the war in Syria is nearly over.
Wael’s family was at first assigned to Lithuania but ultimately rejected on unspecified security grounds–the only justification a reluctant E.U. member state has for refusing to take refugees it never wanted in the first place. Once rejected, Wael’s family had no choice but to apply for asylum in Greece, even though they knew they were unlikely to stay there.
A third family was granted asylum in Estonia, but it too fled for Germany in the hopes of finding a bigger community of Syrians, better opportunities and a more welcoming environment. There is no Europe-wide accounting of what is called secondary movement for relocated refugees, but in Estonia more than half of arrivals from Greece eventually left for elsewhere in the E.U. In Lithuania, it was two-thirds. In neighboring Latvia, all of them left.
The reasons are varied: refugees in remote areas or countries feel isolated; others want to join family elsewhere. The benefits on offer vary wildly, reflecting the local economy and attitudes toward integration. Secondary movement puts an unfair burden on popular destinations, like Germany and Sweden, while countries that resent the E.U. quota system do little to integrate their refugees and happily look the other way when they leave.
The problem lies in one of the foundational tenets of the E.U.: open borders. The Schengen Agreement, in place since 1995, allows for passport-free travel across 26 countries. As the E.U. expanded, so did the Schengen area, but many of the newer member states are suspicious of the bloc’s values, says Elizabeth Collett, founding director of Migration Policy Institute Europe, a Brussels-based research institute. These mainly Eastern European states have less capacity in their asylum systems and negative attitudes about immigration, and offer less help with integration.
The refugee crisis has driven a wedge between these smaller, newer states and the larger, mainly Western ones. Many of the former have only grudgingly accepted the quotas set by the E.U.; Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have refused to take in any refugees at all. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has become one of the most outspoken critics of the E.U.-wide migrant policy, building a border fence and demanding that would-be migrants be processed in Africa or Turkey, rather than in Europe. In September, the E.U. Court of Justice ruled that the three countries would have to abide by the quota. Only Slovakia has acquiesced.
E.U. member states are now in the process of negotiating a more workable system. A new law, proposed by the body’s executive in May, aims to make it easier for migrants to enter legally, in order to discourage the use of smuggling routes. Meanwhile, it wants to strike deals with countries in the Middle East and Africa to take back failed asylum seekers and forge a more permanent quota system. Germany is a strong supporter of the proposal, largely because Merkel needs to demonstrate to her people that the country is not being unfairly burdened. French President Emmanuel Macron is also onboard. But the split between large and small still exists; countries like Hungary and Poland do not want their migration policies to be imposed from Brussels or Berlin, and instead want to toughen border controls.
Refugee advocates call for a more liberalized approach–a human response to what has been treated as a logistical challenge. To start with, says Collett, the application process should take into account the desires of the refugees themselves. But that will have to be accompanied by a much stronger education effort, so that applicants are better informed about the destination countries. At the same time, says Knaus, relocated refugees must be guaranteed roughly comparable living conditions wherever they go, including access to education, health care and a path to citizenship, which is not currently the case. “If I could keep my apartment and my benefits, I wouldn’t need to go to Germany,” says Alsaleh. “Greece has been very good to us, but without the benefits, it’s impossible to stay.”
That may sound costly, but the E.U., through its partners in Greece, Germany and Estonia, spent an average of €800 ($938) per month for each of the Finding Home families to cover shelter, relocation travel, health care, meals and living stipends as their asylum claims were processed. A more streamlined system could free up funds to support successful applicants like Alsaleh long enough for him to stand on his own feet in Greece.
If the E.U. is to build an asylum system that works, it will need to be built to last. The surge in migrants over the past three years is not a trend, analysts say, but a preview of what is to come as regional conflicts evolve and climate change starts driving people from the Middle East and northern Africa. The International Organization for Migration warns that climate change will cause a “substantial rise in the scale of migration and displacement.”
First, Europe must examine its standards for what constitutes a refugee. Right now, Syrians are widely considered to be refugees and are accorded some degree of protection. But those fleeing Afghanistan, a country that has been at war for most of the past 37 years, are increasingly considered to be economic migrants, and Germany is already sending some back. The urgency of the 2015 crisis has blurred the lines between migrant and refugee, says Krastev, the political scientist. As the nature of conflict changes, Europe may have to rethink its definitions, and response. “We are living in a world in which potentially there are hundreds of millions of people who could defend the fact that they are refugees–from war, yes, but also from sexual violence, from climate change, from anti-homosexual persecution, from religious crackdowns,” he says. “How are we going to treat the first climate-change refugees that show up in Europe? As refugees? As labor migrants?”
It must also think long-term. Asylum is considered a temporary refuge from danger, even though instability in many regions of the world can last for decades. Yet many countries are moving in the opposite direction. When refugees from Syria first started arriving in Sweden and Germany, both countries offered full refugee status, which includes the right to permanent residency and a path to citizenship. Now, because of political pressures, Germany offers only so-called subsidiary protection to Syrian refugees–which lasts up to three years and denies many the right to bring over close family members. This may become even less liberal as Merkel seeks to build a coalition between political parties that differ on refugee integration. Even members of her own party have suggested that some Syrian refugees might be able to return home in 2018, citing a pending peace deal negotiated by Russia and Iran.
Altallaa and Alarsan, who were relocated to Germany, say they intend to return home as soon as the war ends. But that statement belies the realities of a shattered country that will take years to rebuild, even under the best circumstances. If European governments want to reverse the flow of refugees, they will have to make it easier for them to go home. And one of the best ways to do that is to offer them long-term residency in the country of asylum, says migration expert Long. It may seem paradoxical, but her research shows that refugees are much more willing to risk returning home to rebuild when they know they have a fallback if war breaks out again. “Giving a refugee permanent status somewhere else actually makes them far more likely to return home in the first months and years of a peace process, because they know they have an exit route,” she says. “They won’t have to get back on a smuggler’s boat if things go wrong.”
Even as E.U. leaders struggle to define a comprehensive policy, the crisis continues to cast a shadow on the continent. Populist politicians across the board are calling for a fresh crackdown on migration. Hungary’s Orban, inspired by Australia’s draconian policy, wants to withhold asylum from any migrant caught illegally entering Europe. This vision of Fortress Europe is gaining currency, and if far-right parties perform well in Italy’s elections next year, it could spread there too. This can be effective, to judge by the declining numbers of arrivals. But at what cost? At least some of the reduction is attributable to a dubious E.U. deal with Libyan mercenaries to prevent would-be migrants from departing the North African coast on smugglers’ boats. Instead, they end up in detention centers where they are abused, tortured, held for ransom and even sold as slaves.
The debate over how to handle migration isn’t going to end Europe, but it will define it. Stricter policies could mean more dead bodies washing up on Europe’s beaches. More liberal ones, if managed badly, could further embolden far-right agendas. “This really is a battle over the soul of Europe,” says Knaus. “If we can show that it is possible to not only reduce arrivals but to reduce the number of deaths in the Mediterranean, while also treating those who arrive decently and allowing them to successfully integrate into society, we can achieve so much more for Europe as a whole.”
Not just for Europe, but for the lives of those who come seeking refuge and a new life free from fear, from tyranny and from war. The refugee crisis may be a political challenge, but it is one that plays out on a human scale. Wael did not choose to leave his home in Syria, and his parents would not take him out of the only school he has ever known if they felt they had a choice. Like the other children TIME has been following over the past year and a half, Wael is a member of Europe’s Generation Refugee. One that, by accident of history or confluence of world events, will only grow in the years and decades to come. What they experience now may, in the end, shape Europe’s future.
–With reporting by IRENE LIOUMI and ABEER ALBADAWI/THESSALONIKI; LAMIS ALJASEM/VERL; and BILLY PERRIGO/LONDON
Reporting for this project is supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Merck for Mothers (known as MSD for Mothers outside of the U.S. and Canada)
Experience our Finding Home multimedia package at time.com/finding-home
This appears in the December 25, 2017 issue of TIME.