With hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Europe this year, the United Nations is calling the refugee crisis the worst since World War II. The tragic headlines of recent weeks – from the coasts of Greece, roads of Austria, Hungarian fields and other places – are unceasing. Yet understanding how the crisis became so severe and what it means can be overwhelming.

This week’s podcast features two ProPublicans with unique insights: Pia Dangelmayer, an Arthur F. Burns fellow from Germany working in our newsroom for the summer, and ProPublica senior reporter Sebastian Rotella, who has spent more than 25 years covering border and migration issues in both Europe and North America. Here they discuss the causes of the refugee crisis, the European Union’s challenges in developing short- and long-term solutions, and how the situation is bringing out the worst and the best of people in a divided Europe.

Photo: Migrants sit in a rubber boat wearing life vests as they are rescued by the Belgian Navy Vessel Godetia during a search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

Highlights from their conversation:

  • In some cases, it’s difficult to distinguish between refugees and migrants. While there are established international norms for what’s considered a refugee – someone escaping war or intense conflict, for example, rather than someone who moves voluntarily for economic reasons – it can be an ambiguous issue. “Is someone coming into Italy from Somalia, which has both desperate poverty and violence, a migrant or a refugee?” Rotella asked, adding that most countries agree letting in refugees should be a higher priority.

  • Fears about the Islamic State taking advantage of the chaos should be placed in context. Terrorists are far more likely to be people born in Europe who make their way into Syria, get training with the Islamic State, and return home to carry out attacks. “The idea that lots of terrorists are going to risk their lives at sea to try to get into Europe is not a huge danger,” Rotella said, though there’s concern from law enforcement about the chaotic flows of people.

  • Italy has a unique perspective on the crisis. Rotella recently interviewed Laura Boldrini, president of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, about how Italy has dealt with an overwhelming influx of migrants and refugees for more than a decade. “Imagine if Arizona were told by the United States to take care of immigration policy on its own; that’s kind of what was going on in Italy,” said Rotella. “Boldrini feels that the way this crisis has spread and affected all of Europe shows … the need for Europe to do better at integrating politically and coming up with a response that’s really been lacking until now.”

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more on the immigration crisis gripping Europe, read Rotella’s story, Can a Divided Europe Handle the Refugee Crisis?