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Aug 14, 2013 | 10:28 GMT

6 mins read

In Europe, a Rise in Asylum Seekers

An asylum seeker in Berlin on March 23.

Flows of people seeking refuge in EU countries are increasing due to ongoing unrest in North Africa and the Middle East as well as economic woes in the Caucasus. This trend is unfolding at an inopportune time for the EU states receiving the majority of these asylum seekers, where problems related to the European crisis are intensifying.

Northern Europe, for example, is dealing with rising immigration from outside the Continent as well as increasing migration from less economically stable EU states. Meanwhile, in countries along the union's external borders, the prevalence of anti-immigrant sentiment has undermined efforts to limit migration of refugees transiting onward to Western Europe. As the Continent's economic crisis continues, calls for stricter border control policies and the popularity of parties with anti-immigration platforms will grow, threatening some of the fundamental structures of EU integration.

According to data released Aug. 2 by Eurostat, around 85,000 asylum applications were filed in EU countries during the first quarter of 2013 — an increase of roughly 15,000 over the same period a year earlier. The increase in asylum seeking in Europe has coincided with the onset of the economic crisis, with applications steadily rising from some 226,000 in 2008 to more than 335,000 by the end of 2012. In the years before the crisis, by comparison, the number of asylum seekers had been steadily falling from around 424,000 in 2001, primarily because regions surrounding Europe, especially the Middle East, had been more stable.

EU Asylum Applications

Syrian and Russian nationals accounted for the largest absolute increases, together making up around 20 percent of applicants in the first quarter of 2013. Meanwhile, Germany had the highest number of outstanding applications, followed by Greece, Belgium, France and Sweden. Greece's geography makes the country an ideal destination for asylum seekers looking to travel deeper into the European Union, while the other leading destinations offer features such as economic stability, strong social benefits, favorable immigration policies and existing large immigrant communities.

Disputes Among EU Members

EU member states have been working since 1999 to develop a common set of regulations on how to handle asylum seekers. This became more important as the European Union grew and the territory with no national border controls (under the so called Schengen Agreement) expanded. However, major differences in asylum policies remain among the various signatories of the Schengen Agreement, and conflicts are frequent. For example, on Aug. 7, Malta reportedly refused to let 102 refugees from Africa rescued by an oil tanker from their inflatable boat disembark, despite pressure from the European Commission to do so. (Italy later accepted the migrants.) EU regulations stipulate that the country where asylum seekers first arrive typically must also take care of them. Malta, a prime destination for refugees from North Africa, has apparently tired of taking on such burdens.

Countries such as Greece or Italy that make up the European Union's southern border have long struggled to deal with flows of refugees from across the Mediterranean. The issue has been magnified by high unemployment rates in destination countries, where social security systems are strained and anti-immigrant sentiment is high.

Greece is under especially heavy migration pressure, since migrants from the Western Balkans and the Middle East who plan to travel farther north commonly use the country as a gateway to the European Union. The rise of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party can be linked partially to the migration issue. A large share of the asylum seekers in Greece end up unemployed and lack the funds to travel onward. With the state's social services already taxed by high unemployment, institutions like the Orthodox Church are playing increasingly prominent roles in aiding the refugees.

EU support has helped reduce illegal migration into the country, but other EU members still regularly criticize Greece for not securing its borders or adequately caring for asylum seekers. In return, Athens routinely criticizes other EU members for not providing enough aid.

Disputes about which states are responsible for migrants passing through EU border states are also common. On Aug. 1, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine examined the high number of Russian asylum applicants passing through Belarus and Poland en route to Germany, which is believed to offer the best economic opportunities. Such migrants are required to apply for asylum in Poland, where they first enter the European Union, but according to the German newspaper, a large number of them are able to pass directly through Poland due to the country's relatively weak supervision of asylum seekers.

Russia and Germany

During the first half of 2013, nearly 10,000 Russian nationals applied for asylum in Germany — a sharp increase over the 3,200 applications during the same period in 2012. Frankfurter Allgemeine, citing sources in the German security services, claims that around 90 percent of Russian applicants are Chechens. Until topping the list in the first quarter of 2013, Russian nationals accounted for the second-most asylum applications in the European Union for the past four years, behind only Afghans.  

The surge of Russian asylum seekers in Germany is mostly due to perpetually poor economic conditions in the Russian republic of Chechnya. The Russian government has a large-scale investment plan to create jobs in the Caucasus, but with the Chechen population in the country having skyrocketed — growing 50 percent since the fall of the Soviet Union despite two wars — the Kremlin's plan appears to be insufficient. Moreover, with ethnic tensions growing in Russia in recent years, Chechens are finding it difficult to find jobs elsewhere in the country.

In Germany, recent court decisions supporting asylum seekers and immigrants have likely made the country an even more attractive destination. In 2012, the German constitutional court ruled that refugees are entitled to social benefits comparable to those of the German population, regarding the previous levels of aid as inhumane.

Western Europe's Immigration Dilemma

Large economies such as those in Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Nordic countries, which have a long tradition of accepting refugees, are particularly attractive to migrants inside Europe and out — and such countries stand to benefit from their arrival. The prevalence of aging, shrinking populations in Europe has created an EU-wide competition for labor, making immigration necessary for countries looking to maintain their workforce and boost their consumer base. For example, much of the United Kingdom's expected population growth will come from immigration, while Poland's population is expected to drop in the coming decades. Moreover, immigrants tend to have high birthrates, which can lead to a young, productive workforce.

However, heavy immigration can also be seen as a threat to national culture or security. Moreover, suspicions that asylum seekers are abusing their social security systems are widespread in destination countries. Skepticism about arrivals from the Western Balkans in particular could explain why nearly 100 percent of Serbian asylum applicants were rejected in the first quarter of 2013, according to Eurostat data.

Such sentiments are common about migrants from other EU countries as well. For example, the British government is trying to make it less attractive for Romanians and Bulgarians to immigrate to the United Kingdom. In 2014, exemptions from accepting Bulgarian and Romanian workers will expire in all EU countries, raising fears in the United Kingdom that a sharp increase in immigration — as happened when Poland and other countries joined the European Union in 2004 — is looming. Indeed, Poles make up the second-largest group of foreign residents in the United Kingdom, behind Indians.

Over the coming years, parties calling for stronger immigration controls appear likely to gain popularity, and countries can be expected to question the merits of the border-free Schengen area and implement tighter immigration rules. Within countries, clashes between migrant and native populations are likely to become more frequent. Thus, the combination of continued northern flows of European migrants, the increase in asylum applications and the spread of the European economic crisis appears primed to weaken some of the achievements Europe has seen in integration.

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