Europe Migration Crisis, Sergey Ponomarev's photography

Sergey Ponomarev Europe Migration Crisis

Migrants arrive by a Turkish boat near the village of Skala, on the Greek island of Lesbos. The Turkish boat owner delivered some 150 people to the Greek coast and tried to escape back to Turkey; he was arrested in Turkish waters. November 16, 2015. 

Hundreds of thousands of people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran, Pakistan and Eritrea, have been forced onto a long and dangerous path – at the end of which they hope to find a safe home for themselves and their families.

Desperate refugees board the train toward Zagreb at Tovarnik station on the border with Serbia. As key nations tightened their borders, thousands of migrants and asylum seekers were bottled up in the Balkans, placing precarious new burdens on a region of lingering sectarian divisions that were exceptionally ill-prepared to handle the crisis. Friday, September 18, 2015.

Greece refugees ride the train that takes them across Macedonia from the southern border with Greece to the Northern border with Serbia, August 26, 2015.

A refugee boy searches for his parents amid chaos at the border between Greece and Macedonia outside the small Greek town of Idomeni. The border police let them go through a few at a time. Women and children are allowed to go ahead, which leads to unfortunate misunderstandings, as the women become separated from their men and start wailing, afraid they will not see them again. Greece, Wednesday, August 26, 2015.

Refugees wait in line for documents at the refugee processing centre in Presevo, Serbia. Long lines of refugees stand in the blistering sun outside a rusting fence, begging guards to let them into the Serbian reception centre, on the outskirts of Presevo. Refugees have no choice but to register if they want to travel farther through Serbia. Countries like Greece, Macedonia and Serbia recognize that few if any of the migrants want to stay in those countries because of the poor economic prospects. So they have come up with a system that gives the refugees the legal right to pass through, without necessarily applying for asylum. In Serbia, they register to stay in the country for 72 hours, gaining the right to travel, and even to stay in a hotel. Thursday, August 27, 2015.

Migrants stand near the rudimentary map of Europe that is pictured on the wall of a migrant shelter by the Moria processing centre on Lesbos island Greece. Thursday, November 19, 2015.

Police on horses escort hundreds of migrants after they crossed from Croatia in Dobova, Slovenia. Tuesday, October 20, 2015.

Migrants walking past a church, escorted by Slovenian riot police to a registration camp outside Dobova, Slovenia. The small Balkan nations along the path of human migration through Europe have seen record numbers of refugees crossing their borders, and have been overwhelmed in their ability to manage the human flow. October 22, 2015.

Migrants walking along a dike, escorted by Slovenian riot police, to a registration camp outside Dobova. Despite hopes that falling temperatures and treacherous seas would slow the tide of refugees, fresh fighting in Syria and growing fears of border closings drove more people to undertake the treacherous trek. October 23, 2015.

Migrants wait to be escorted by Slovenian riot police to the registration camp outside Dobova, Slovenia. Migrants — exhausted, cold and frequently forced to stop — are growing impatient, crossing one border after another. Groups of young men from Afghanistan and other countries, noticeably more aggressive toward the police than the terrified families traveling with them, are becoming a challenge for the authorities and other refugees. Saturday, October 24, 2015.

Artist's statement

Our world is rapidly changing before our eyes and we aren’t always able to appreciate the scale of these historic changes in the confines of the environments in which we find ourselves. Europe is currently experiencing one of the most significant influxes of migrants and refugees in its history. 

Hundreds of thousands of civilians from the Middle East and from Africa have been forced to abandon their homes. War, violence and terror have invaded the peaceful, habitual space of these people and have left it in ruins. Hundreds of thousands of people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran, Pakistan and Eritrea, have been forced onto a long and dangerous path – at the end of which they hope to find a safe home for themselves and their families.

On reaching the shores of Turkey, these people see Europe on the horizon – The Promised Land. Many of them set eyes on the sea for the first time in their lives, but the horror of perishing in the depths of the ocean is easier than the danger that lies at home. In these flotillas of frail rubber rafts, the migrants make their way towards the Greek islands. In these rafts were women, children, and babies, as well as elderly and disabled people. Shaking with fear, they found strength in the promise of a better life, in the hope that a protected, safe space awaited them.

But for many refugees that perilous journey would be their last.“We have to go!”I must have heard that phrase a thousand times: sometimes as a slogan that the crowd would scream at the closed Hungarian-Serbian border, or a mantra the migrants would chant at the fences of Macedonia. They shouted these words with such pleas and prayers because they simply had nothing more to lose.

Their pasts were no more than a memory, immortalized in the bright, family photographs they’d saved on their smartphones. Their whole lives were encapsulated in the few, scattered possessions they’d managed to bring along in their rucksacks. These fragments of broken, far-off land, which each migrant carried with them, are now scattered across Europe.

The refugees continued forwards, entering into a strange, unknown, but sheltered space. Sometimes, they didn’t really know where they were or where exactly they were headed. Forwards, they stumbled along rail tracks and highways, walked along village streets and city avenues. Forwards, they continued on ferries, buses and trains. Sometimes this flood of people was stuck in what we call, bottlenecks. These places were the Croatian city of Tovarnik or Dobova in Slovenia, Roszke in Hungary, Gevgelija in Macedonia, and the Serbian city of Presevo. Here, I witnessed how thousands of people would huddle together in tiny spaces: in train or bus stations; thousands waiting on the roadside to board trains or buses to take them onwards to their unknown destination.

The early stages of this transition into the unknown were chaotic, the refugees’ path was often dictated by the riot police and the army who were trained to deal with the civil unrest of football hooligans. Cordons and borders separated families. And the police remained oblivious to their pleas, cynical and arrogant in their power over the powerless, betraying the hope of the desperate who had made it that far – against all odds – only to suffer the cruellest fate of all.

On the ground, I was constantly recalling the short story The Overcoat, written in the 19th century by the Russian-Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol. The story focuses on the plight of the “little man”: a story of a poor government clerk constantly at odds with an unfair system, grappling with the challenges of rigid bureaucracy and the oppressive, hierarchical social structure of St Petersburg. The plight of the little man has always been an anchor for my work: suffering broadens our perception and experience of what it means to be human; when these people tell their own, little stories – their personal stories of injustice and oppression – a bigger story is told along the way.

Most of the refugees reached Europe. They began to conjure up and build new living spaces for themselves, forever changing the face of Europe itself.

We Europeans now face a choice: to naively try and reorder things that no longer exist, or begin to create our shared, peaceful living space.

About the photographer


1980 Moscow, Russia



Based in

Moscow, Russia

Sergey Ponomarev is a freelance photographer.  Before he worked for the Associated Press starting in 2003.

Sergey is best known for his photojournalism works depicting wars and conflicts in Middle East including Syria, Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt and Libya as well as Russian daily life and culture which were published in The New York Times, Paris Match, Figaro, Stern.

Sergey was part of The New York Times team that has won Pulitzer prize in 2016 for reporting on the Refugee Crisis in Europe, also he won many international and domestic photography awards including World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year, Overseas Press Club and others.