Early one morning this spring, 15-year-old Ali * sat in an inflatable plastic boat on the Mediterranean Sea. It had been three months since he left his home in Somalia in the back of a pickup truck. Desperate to escape the violence and poverty there, he'd arranged for smugglers to take him 4,400 miles across the African desert to the coast of Libya.
Now, crammed inside the small boat with about 70 other migrants, he dreamed of starting a new life in Europe, a couple hundred miles away.
But after a few hours at sea, a hole appeared in the front of the boat and air started leaking out. Some of the passengers tried desperately to cover the opening, while others used a satellite phone to call the Italian coast guard. It took six hours for help to arrive.
"Those six hours were the worst moments of my life," says Ah, who survived, along with everyone else on board.
Ali and his fellow travelers represent just a fraction of the growing number of desperate migrants who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe this year. Many are escaping violence, poverty, or persecution in the Middle East and Africa. According to the United Nations, more than 350,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by boat so far in 2015.
Most, like Ali, are packed into rickety vessels that were never meant for the high seas. The boats often lack life jackets and navigation equipment. Severely overloaded, many have capsized, and more than 2,700 people have drowned this year alone.
In September, Abdullah Kurdi, a refugee from Syria, lost his wife and two young sons when the raft smugglers had provided to take them from Turkey to Greece flipped over and they drowned. The tragic image of Kurdi's 3-year-old son lying face down on a Turkish beach shot around the world on social media. The photo encapsulated the horror of the situation and the human cost of Europe's failure to come up with a coordinated response to the migrant crisis.
"There is a new realization," says Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of Malta, "that if Europe doesn't act as a team, history will judge it very harshly."
With tens of thousands of migrants moving through Europe--many fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan--the situation has become more chaotic and desperate by the day. In August, the decomposing bodies of 71 migrants were found in the back of a truck parked on the side of the road in Austria. At Budapest's main train station, Hungarian police struggled to hold back thousands of migrants determined to get on trains bound for Germany, which has Europe's strongest economy and has been more generous than many other countries in receiving the refugees.
The migrants are also going by bus, paying smugglers to be loaded into trucks, and in some cases walking. Many are coming north from Greece, sneaking across borders through the Balkans, toward Hungary, which is part of the European Union (see map, below).
Once inside the E.U., the migrants have moved relatively freely since there have been no border checks since 1995. But that seems to be changing as countries like Germany and Austria introduce border checks to control the flow of migrants. For months, the 28 E.U. countries have been bickering over what to do, so there's been little coordinated response to the unfolding disaster.
Most Refugees Since WWII
There's also mounting pressure for the United States to take more of the migrants. Despite concerns that terrorists could attempt to get into the country among the refugees, President Obama has pledged to accept 10,000 Syrians over the next year.
The struggles of migrants are nothing new, but the scope of the current wave is vast. Today, the U.N. estimates that nearly 60 million people are displaced worldwide--more than at any other time since World War II (1939-45).
Syria's violent civil war, which is tearing that nation apart, is responsible for a sizable portion of the migrant crisis. Since the fighting began in 2011, more than 250,000 people have been killed, 7.6 million have been displaced within Syria, and another 4 million have fled the country.
Thousands of others are running from poor, unstable countries in Africa. In Somalia, where Ali was born, a terrorist group known as al-Shabaab has been wreaking havoc for years. The group's aim: to overthrow the country's Western-backed government and impose strict Islamic law.
"In my country, there is no peace," says Ali.
In January, Ali decided that it was finally time to flee. He left Somalia with a 19-year-old friend, whose father paid smugglers to take the two teens to Libya. As they traveled north through the Sahara Desert--where temperatures can reach as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit--they were given little food or water. Then one day, Ali's friend fell out of the back of the pickup truck as it sped through the Sahara.
"[He] didn't make it," says Ali. "We buried him in the desert."
Weeks later, Ali arrived in Libya alone and afraid. Security along the Mediterranean coast of this North African country is virtually nonexistent, allowing smugglers to...