5 simple things to know about asylum policy in the European Union

Migration is quickly turning into the defining issue of our time. This might sound cliché, but is true. Not only does migration top the list of most important problems facing society, but it is also divisive in a way no other issue is. Unlike problems like inequality or the environment, immigration polarizes and divides opinions of ordinary people in a manner that cuts through social classes, education levels, age groups, and political affiliations. Divisions and bitter disagreements run even within families and close circles of friends. For no other issue do I see on my Facebook wall the full gamut of opinions ranging from strong rejection of migrants and refugees to their unconditional welcome and embrace. Most opinions of course fall somewhere in-between expressing, for example, support for `genuine’ refugees fleeing war but not for economic migrants, or for Christian but not for Muslim immigrants; yet, deep and important disagreements remain.

The current crisis with the influx of hundreds-of-thousands asylum-seekers in Europe in the summer of 2015 is only but the current episode of the unfolding migration drama. The crisis and the political responses to it bring powerful emotions in people: fear and compassion, anger and humility, empathy and contempt. Together with polarization, emotions further cloud the discussion of asylum policies and the right thing for the European countries to do in this situation. In response, I want to share five simple things I happen to know about asylum policies in the EU. I am by no means a specialist on the legal aspects of asylum or migration law. My expertise comes from two rather technical policy studies I have conducted on the aggregate patterns of asylum applications and country refugee recognition rates over the last decade, and on their relationships with the broader social and political contexts. (see here and here for the academic articles and here for a blogpost and visualization based on them)

1) The asylum policies of the countries members of the European Union still differ a lot. Despite a considerable body of EU legislation harmonizing national asylum policies, in effect these national policies have not converged to a common set of standards and rules. The differences concern the handling of asylum application procedures (e.g. their duration), the actual support provided by the state to the applicants during the procedure, the quality of the reception facilities, the rights and privileges gained after (and if) a refugee status is granted, the forms of alternative protection if a refugee status is not granted, and what happens to those who are refused any protection. Most importantly of all, however, the EU member states differ significantly with respect to their recognition rates (the share of applications that are granted the refugee status) even for applicants from the same country of origin. By implication, this means that different states apply rather different criteria when assessing the asylum applications.
These differences are crucial to understand why a joint common EU asylum application center does not seem politically feasible at the moment and is not even being discussed as an option to respond to the current crisis. Until such considerable differences exist, a truly single European policy on asylum would remain out of sight.

2) The strictness of national policies towards asylum-seekers matter relatively little for the asylum flows they receive. You can think that by tightening their asylum policies – making reception conditions worse, reducing support during the application and after, or lowering the recognition rate, countries can lessen the asylum application burden that they face. But in fact asylum flows tend to be relatively insensitive and unresponsive, at least in the short and medium terms, to the strictness of national asylum policies and to how low or high the national recognition rates are. So manipulating national policy is not an effective tool to divert (or attract) asylum application flows. The same goes for the effect of current economic conditions or the political climate in a country (for example, whether there is broad public and party support or opposition to migrants). Asylum flows are directed to a large degree by geographical convenience and existing transit networks, by hearsay and stereotypes to be affected by the details of national asylum policies or recognition rates. The implication of all that is that no single country can unilaterally isolate itself from the asylum flows coming to Europe. That being said, because asylum flows are highly clustered (see below), not being on what is at the moment the most convenient route to Western and Northern Europe can dramatically affect the number of asylum-seekers that pass through or end up in your country.

3) Asylum-seekers from the same nationality or region tend to cluster in particular places. Not only do asylum-seekers from the same region or country tend to travel on the same routes employing the same networks and middlemen, but they also tend to cluster when and where they choose a place to lodge an application and where they settle if allowed. These points are quite intuitive. Extended family ties and networks provide for crucial information about handling the asylum-application process and about the living and working conditions in the host country and city. They also provide support and protection, etc. So no wonder that new asylum-seekers and refugees try to go to where they family and friends already are.
What is important to recognize, however, are the not so obvious policy implications of the fact that asylum-seekers and refugees cluster in space. Because migrants would tend to congregate in few places, these places would be subject to a much greater asylum burden than others. This goes for countries, but also for cities and regions within countries.
That is why countries are reluctant to let asylum-seekers and refugees settle wherever they wish in the EU. Otherwise, the fear is that because of the attracting power of existing networks of relatives and compatriots, very few places will have to deal with the challenges of supporting and integrating a great proportion of the refugees. The call for mandatory country (and existing regional within-country) quotas are partly responding to these expectations.

4) Even when recognized as such, refugees do not enjoy a freedom of movement in the EU. As mentioned above, refugees (and asylum-seekers) are not allowed to move, reside and work freely within the EU, unlike citizens of its member states. Even though recognized refugees might have the rights to work and live in the country that has recognized their status and even benefit from the national social protection policies, they cannot choose to relocate to another member states. This is important in order to understand why it is so crucial for the asylum-seekers to reach the desired place in Europe before they lodge an application.
But it is also important to understand why the compulsory re-settlement based on country quotas that the European Commission proposes would likely not work. Even if adopted by the Council (which at the moment seems rather unlikely), the scheme would run into troubles the moment the refugees try to skip their imposed host countries and go to where their family and support networks are. And they will. The resettlement quote scheme would then have to be coupled with measures like compulsory self-reporting or tagging that would allow for tracing the location of refugees and asylum seekers. Such measures would not only by expensive, but morally objectionable as well.

5) Even when their requests for asylum are rejected, asylum seekers often stay in Europe. This is the dirty little secret of asylum policy in Europe. Even when an asylum application has been rejected, and even when other forms of alternative protection are not granted, the migrants are rarely sent back to their country of origin. They either disappear into illegality but never leave the continent or exist in a para-legal limbo where their presence is tolerated but no support is provided. European countries differ in the extent to which they allow this to happen, and it is hard to get precise numbers about the scale of the problem, but it is in any case huge. Alternatives are, however, hard to find as locating and sending people back to their country of origin is expensive, often impossible if the migrants lack proper documents, and, many would argue, morally objectionable. But this fact undermines the idea that asylum-seekers are a special group of migrants who are only allowed to stay in the country if they face serious threats for their lives and dignity at home. If those who are rejected are allowed or tolerated to stay anyways, the difference between an asylum-seeker and a migrant motivated by economic or other reasons is much hard to draw in the public mind. Note that I am not saying that people migrating for reasons others than fleeing wars and persecution should not be welcomed; only that many people have different attitudes and policy preferences with respect to different groups of migrants, and that blurring the boundaries between the groups can have negative consequences for people’s selective support of particular groups, like refugees.

 All in all, none of these five points suggest a comprehensive solution to the current asylum crisis or point to a clear way forward. What they do, hopefully, is to outline some of the facts and constraints that those in power must have in mind when designing responses to the situation and some arguments with which the judge existing proposals.

To put my cards on the table, I currently think that a combination of three policies can be preferable to the current system and to existing proposals:

  • A centralized single EU-managed system of asylum application centers at places along (and perhaps even outside) the borders of the EU, financed by the EU budged and staffed by European civil servants (support for the regions where the application centers are located would be needed to handle the flow of asylum-seekers during the time their applications are being assessed);
  • Free movement for recognized asylum seekers within the continent. This should include the rights to move, settle, and work, but not necessarily access to the social systems of the host countries. Places where refugees happen to cluster disproportionately would get support from a pot to which all countries contribute.
  • Strict control of the external borders of the EU to channel the applications through the official centers and strict `no access’ policy for people denied asylum or alternative forms of protection.

This would represent a rather drastic change from the system currently in place so it probably has low political feasibility. At the same time, current proposals do not seem to fare much better in the EU decision-making bodies, so the scale of required changes should be no reason to disregard the ideas.

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