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The Syrian refugee crisis, explained in one map

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Stories like that of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish shore after drowning on the journey to Greece, and Osama Abdul Muhsen, the Syrian refugee father who was kicked and tripped on camera by a Hungarian journalist, have shown how the Syrian refugee crisis is experienced on a human level. But the severity of the crisis becomes much clearer when you zoom out and see how it unfolds on a continental scale:

syria refugees europe not pixelated

Numbers in circles represent Syrian refugee populations. Numbers in squares represent all refugees, Syrian and non-Syrian. (Javier Zarracina/Vox)

Most of the world's 19 million refugees are not Syrian — about 4 million are from Syria — so the story of the global refugee crisis is far from just a Syrian story. And many of the stories told in this map, particularly the difficult journeys into and then across Europe, apply to migrants from other countries as well, such as Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many others. This map focuses on Syrians because the Syrian refugee crisis is itself an important story, and also because it is representative of the broader refugee crisis.

One of the first things you'll notice in this map is that the largest population of Syrian refugees isn't in Europe — it's in the Middle East, in Syria's neighboring countries, often in vast and underfunded UN-run refugee camps. That is an important part of why so many refugees are traveling to Europe: Many see little hope of returning home to Syria anytime soon, and see little future for themselves and their families in the camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Another story this map helps to tell is the number of routes into the European Union, and particularly toward the more northern EU states that are often more likely to accept refugees. Syrian refugees in Turkey or Lebanon frequently go across the eastern Mediterranean to Greece from Turkey, but some also travel to Egypt and take the trans-Mediterranean route there. Some go across land entirely, crossing from Turkey into Bulgaria.

These routes are dangerous. Refugees crossing the Mediterranean often travel in poorly constructed dinghies that make even the short trip from Turkey to Greece dangerous. Around 2,700 people (that's a total, not just Syrians) have died so far trying to cross the Mediterranean, including roughly 200 in one desperate late-August boat trip.

And even when you get to land, you're not safe: 71 migrants crammed into a truck suffocated to death in a truck in Austria, also in late August. So those arrows on the map, big and small, by no means indicate secure travel routes — rather, they point to roads and seaways born out of desperation.

Once on the European continent, Syrian refugees often go to the Balkans to enter the EU at Hungary or CroatiaBut even once in the EU, refugees must confront a number of European countries that are working to keep them out, or keep them from moving freely across Europe. The border controls between Hungary and its neighbors, for example, or between Austria and Germany are a major and at times perilous impediment to refugees.

Such border controls are also, many argue, against the spirit of the EU, among which the Schengen Area countries (marked in purple) are supposed to allow free movement across one another's borders.

As you can see on the map, Hungary has built a fence on its border to keep out refugees. Greece, already reeling from its own financial crisis, has been unable to process the thousands of migrants — forcing refugees in places like Lesbos to set up impromptu tent cities near the port.

Most displaced Syrian, though, are still in Syria: about 8 million. In total, there are about 12 million Syrians who've been forced to flee their homes. It's a disaster.

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