The end of asylum in Europe as we know it?

The latest EASO report shows a sharp decline of asylum applications in the EU, the border closures due to the pandemic severely diminished access to protection whilst the EU published its plan to further increase deportations. In this blog I query whether asylum has a future at all in Europe?

In the wake of the crisis of displacement in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around 2015 various measures had been taken by governments in the countries affected by subsequent migrations to restrict access to protection in the EU and other receiving European countries. Notably, a wall was built between Turkey and Syria, fences erected along the Bulgarian, Macedonian, Hungarian and other borders, arrivals detained in inhumane camps on the Greek islands, and the 2016 EU-Turkey statement and collusion agreed between the EU and Libyan coast guard. As a consequence, the number of people being able to claim asylum in the EU has diminished from 1,200,000 first-time applicants in 2015, to 620,000 in 2017, and 549,000 2018, though slightly increased again in 2019. The decline was particularly sharp in Germany, four fifths, from 745,160 in 2016 to 165,615 in 2019, whilst people have been contained in respectively diverted to other, often peripheral EU countries, notably Turkey, where after 2016 from to 2018 asylum applications almost doubled 66,000 to 115,000 (before dropping sharply, too) and Greece, where numbers rose by 50%. Also, in Spain and France numbers increased significantly in recent years. In fact, in 2019, only five EU countries – Germany, France, Spain, Greece and Italy – receive 84 % of the remaining applications whereas the other 23 countries have been hosting very few asylum applicants, 12 fewer than 3,000, six even less than a thousand people. Resettlement did not compensate for this downward trend, rather the opposite: whilst pledges by the member states were increased from 10,000 in 2015 and 2016 to 25,000 in 2018 and 2019 (though only 21,000 were resettled that year), in 2020 resettlement was paused due to the pandemic and is only slowly restarted. At the same time, the global level of forced migrants has doubled since 2011 and reached record highs of 79.5 million in 2019.

The latest publication of the asylum trends by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) suggests that the policy responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, notably travel restrictions (cancelled trains, busses and flights) and border closures, also further restricted migration for the purpose of seeking asylum. Whilst in January and February 2020 an average of 58,000 people applied for asylum in the EU27 plus Norway and Switzerland, this dropped sharply to around 8,000 in March and April but has increased again from May to September to an average of around 35,000 per month. During the first nine months of 2020 305,000 first-time applications for asylum were filed. If the current trend continues, there will only be 415,000 applications in 2020, 33 % less than in the previous year and a third of the level of 2015.

Whilst levels of applications could be expected to increase again once the Covid-19-related travel restrictions are eased, one might think that the EU Commission is using the current lull to try and rush through its proposal for new Pact on Migration and Asylum or at least parts of it. This is largely a revival of a package of policies which had already failed to be agreed by the member states, respectively the EU Council and the European parliament in 2016 ─ which is aiming to take on unwanted including asylum migration. With this policy package the already strict responses to refugees get even more hostile. New arrivals are intended to be kept in camps near the external borders of the peripheral EU countries, access to independent advice or comprehensive appeal rights would be further hampered and many asylum seekers’ claims assessed by way of fast-track procedures. Furthermore, countries of transit and origin are pressurised to collaborate in return and swift deportations shall be enforced of those two thirds whose asylum applications are rejected. The proposal for the new pact clarifies that “on average every year around 370,000 applications for international protection are rejected but only around a third of these persons are returned home (page 1) and promises to “swiftly return those who have no right to stay” (page 6). The plan is “that asylum and return work as part of a single system”, that return becomes an integrated part of asylum. If this becomes reality, in 2020, for instance, only around 138,000 applicants would be admitted, a mere 0.22 % of the people displaced worldwide whereas the majority, 277,000 would even be deported to where they came from. In other words, the asylum system would de facto rather become a return system!

As a result of the combined effect of restrictions to access to international protection and the closure of borders to stop the spread of the coronavirus we now see a worrying anti-cyclical development meaning that the number of people in need of international protection increases whereas the number of people offered international protection in the EU has been diminishing. Those few per cent who are still admitted are no more than a fig leaf; it is merely enough to demonstrate that the EU is not completely abandoning its obligations under human rights and refugee rights but hardly sufficient given the large number of people in need of protection. By and large, however, the EU rather keeps more and more displaced people at bay whereas countries in the neighbourhood of the EU and the global South shoulder even more responsibility with regards to providing protection. Given the decreasing and partly very low numbers of asylum applications the picture emerging is that most EU and some other European countries (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland) are on a course to de facto almost ended asylum (and is not any better in Australia or North America). This is further underlined by the European Commission’s plan to instead enhance support to third countries hosting refugees which basically signals to the countries in the Global South ‘providing international protection is none of our business (even though it is our arms trade feeding the violence), it’s your problem’. And this, whilst the EU concentrates around 16 % of the global GDP.

This trend has to be seen in the context of the things to come in future decades: The end of the current economic model based on fossil energy, climate change, rising sea levels, possible conflicts over scarce resources (fertile land, water etc.) and rising geopolitical tensions could all lead to further and increasing displacement forcing more people to search for new homes. Only in 2018, and in response to these challenges 27 out of the then 28 EU member states signed up to the idea of─ “seek[ing] to achieve more equitable and predictable burden and responsibility-sharing” (page 4) as enshrined in the Global Compact on Refugees. However, the above illustrates that the EU is instead rather continuing and even hardening its protectionist “‘contained mobility’ approach”. If the current policy direction is continued the EU could well be on course of de facto largely withdrawing from making a “more equitable” contribution to providing direct protection to and thus abandoning the worlds’ global displaced populations.

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