Our series, "Take A Number," is exploring problems around the world — and the people who are trying to solve them — through the lens of a single number.
158,000. That's roughly how many refugees are stuck in limbo in Europe right now.
Many of them got to Europe in late 2015, when the refugee crisis reached its peak, and have been waiting since then to see if they'll be formally accepted into the European Union. To cut down on the wait time and economic impact of this massive influx, some countries and nonprofits in Europe have embraced a new idea — pay refugees to go back to the countries they left in the first place.
Mahmoud Abdelwahab is one of the people who has been waiting. He's 25, and originally from Mosul, Iraq. In early 2016, he quit his job as a cook and came to Europe, ending up in Vienna.
"He saw people dying on the trip, like capsizing or falling from the boat into the sea," Philipp Epaid says. Epaid is Abdelwahab's counselor at Caritas, the nonprofit that provides refugee services to people in Austria who are returning home.
Abdelwahab filled out his application to stay in Austria almost two years ago. Since then, nothing.
All he could do — legally — was wait in a refugee camp. This is a big problem a lot of people waiting for asylum have: They aren't allowed to get a job, which means Mahmoud couldn't send money back to his family.
"He wants to work. He wants to learn the language, and if you have no chance to do this, you're stuck and you get tired," Epaid says.
Abdelwahab says he spent two years all alone, feeling like a failure. And that the odds of getting asylum are stacked against him.
He's not wrong — the Austrian courts have been overwhelmed by applications. When the migrant crisis reached its peak back in 2015, the number of people wanting to stay in Austria tripled.
Instead of waiting longer, Mahmoud late last year made a tough decision. He decided to leave Austria and go back to Iraq.
"He saw other Iraqi people receiving the negative decision that they have to go back," Epaid says. "And that's why he decided for himself to back, before he got a negative."
That decision — to voluntarily leave the country — is exactly what the Austrian government wants refugees to do. Last spring, Austria announced that it would give 1,000 euros to the first 1,000 refugees who signed up to leave on their own.
The program was successful, and the government extended the offer to more refugees. It's an incentive that's gaining traction across Europe.
"Either they choose the voluntary option or we have to discuss the forced option," says Karl-Heinz Groendbock, the spokesman for the Austrian Interior Ministry. That's the department that's funding the voluntary program. "Whenever it comes to forced return, we're talking about arresting people. It means we also have detention centers for people waiting for forced return."
Groendbock says it's a lot cheaper to give someone a one-way flight and 1,000 euros than using the country's resources to deport them. And, he adds, when there are more applications, there will be more rejections. So, the government has wanted to encourage more refugees to return home — a decision thousands of refugees made in 2017.
But is paying them really in the best interest of refugees? Philipp Epaid, Abdelwahab's counselor, is not sure. He says it's really important that a refugee makes a life-changing decision like this one on his own.
But this program is exactly why Mahmoud Abdelwahab chose to return home to Iraq — voluntarily.
On a warm Thursday in October, he took a bus to the Vienna airport, ready to board a flight to Baghdad.
He's taking the buyout, he says, to go home and use the money to buy a car and become a cab driver.
"Two years ... [I] was here for nothing," Mahmoud says as Epaid translates. "It didn't make any sense to come here."
NPR has reached out to Abdelwahab, but hasn't heard from him since he flew home to Iraq.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're returning now to Puerto Rico's efforts to recover from Hurricane Maria. While the focus on immediate needs is still there, now the U.S. territory's leaders have also decided that a new push for statehood should be part of the recovery effort. This week, a bipartisan shadow congressional delegation comprised of distinguished former officials went to Capitol Hill to lobby Congress to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.
Alfonso Aguilar is one of the Republican shadow representatives. He's also the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and a former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship. He served under President George W. Bush. He was kind of stopped by our studios in Washington, D.C., to tell us more. Alfonso Aguilar, thanks so much for speaking with us.
ALFONSO AGUILAR: Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure.
MARTIN: Now, this was an issue even before the hurricane, I want to say. I want to note that the official party platforms of both the Democratic and Republican Party in Puerto Rico support statehood. So what are you doing differently now, and why now?
AGUILAR: Well, you know, I think now it's become very evident after the devastation caused by Maria, we are at the mercy of Congress. We have no political clout in Washington, and that certainly affects us in terms of getting help from the federal government. So when we have a hurricane like we just had that devastated the island, and we're talking about a supplemental bill to provide funding - emergency funding for recovery efforts in the states - Texas, Florida, they have the appropriate representation to ensure that they get the money that they need.
In the case of Puerto Rico, again, we're at the mercy of Congress. We're hoping that they're going to be merciful, but perhaps they will provide something that really doesn't respond to the needs of the island. That's why representation or democracy, it's just so basic, the very basic right of a citizen is the right to vote.
MARTIN: You and the other delegates were selected by the governor of Puerto Rico. And I do want to mention, again, this is a very distinguished group - a baseball Hall of Famer, three former governors. So it's three Republicans, three Democrats and an independent. You were all appointed. So do you think that these members have any reason to seat people who were not elected?
AGUILAR: Well, you know, this is a tool. We recognize this. We have been appointed. Eventually, we will have an election. And we'll have an elected delegation. But this is the first face of the effort to push statehood.
MARTIN: Let me ask you this, though, why should they care? Why should they care? Given that - this is - you're talking about extending federal recognition or the same voting rights to other people. And for people who already have those rights, why should they care?
AGUILAR: Well, first of all, it's a question of principle, right? Our forefathers created a republic that guarantee equal rights to everyone. And we know that that wasn't the case. But with time, citizenship has expanded to include absolutely every single citizen. So if we care about the Constitution, if we want to ensure that we have a country that guarantees every single citizen full rights, then I think we have to address the issue of Puerto Rico. That's a question of principle.
In terms of practical matters, look. The situation right now in Puerto Rico, we have a fiscal crisis - large debt, over $70 billion. The economy is in a deep recession. And all of this has been exacerbated by Maria. The federal government is going to have to continue sending money to Puerto Rico. Under statehood, we're going to be paying into the system. Financially, we're going to do much better. And eventually, in five, 10 years, Puerto Rico's going to be paying more into the system than the money that they send to Puerto Rico.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I do want to ask a sticky question, which is there are those who argue and will say that they think that the hesitation to address this issue, both with Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, is that these are predominately non-white and that's what the objection is?
AGUILAR: In the case of Puerto Rico, I don't believe that. I don't believe that people oppose statehood for Puerto Rico because its a Hispanic population. There is a consideration about their ethnicity, but it's not racism. I think there's this perception that just because they're Hispanic, they would largely vote for Democrats. And we have to explain to them that is just not the case. Puerto Ricans, like the majority of Hispanics, are very conservative on social issues, when it comes to the issue of right to life, it comes to marriage. But at the end, there will be swing voters. If Republicans cannot convince Puerto Rican voters in future elections, they're going to have a very hard time convincing Hispanic voters at the national level.
MARTIN: That's Alfonso Aguilar, Republican shadow representative for Puerto Rico. He and fellow members of this delegation are in Washington, D.C., lobbying, once again, for statehood for the U.S. territory. Alfonso Aguilar, thanks so much for coming in.
AGUILAR: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.