While the exact number of refugees and asylum-seekers in the European Union is impossible to know, the United Nations estimates that there are approximately 1.7 million registered refugees living within the bloc. The real number is likely to be much higher, as many people who do not receive official refugee status remain outside the statistics. According to EU legal definitions, asylum-seekers are people who have left their countries because of war, persecution or natural disasters and have submitted requests for refugee status. Refugees are people who have been awarded that status and thus can be protected by the host state. Both are different from economic migrants, or migrant workers, whose primary reason for emigration is the desire to find work or improve their economic situation.
The European Union has been trying to establish some general rules in dealing with asylum-seekers, but the legal environment varies widely from country to country. Some EU members have very flexible requirements and give refugee status to the majority of applicants, while others only give that status to a very limited number of applicants. This often leads to asylum-seekers consciously selecting where to file their applications in a practice known in EU jargon as "asylum shopping."
The European Union tried to address this problem in 2003 with the Dublin Regulation, according to which the country of first entry is responsible for dealing with the application of the asylum-seeker. This agreement sought to prevent applicants from submitting applications in multiple EU nations and to reduce the number of asylum-seekers moving from one country to another. But it also put substantial pressure on the countries on the European Union's borders, because they are the ones dealing with the largest numbers of entries. People escaping military and political conflicts are converging on the bloc's external borders, with Africans heading for Italy and Malta, Syrians and Iraqis for Greece and Bulgaria, and Russians (mostly Chechens) for Poland.
The Dublin Regulation has proven difficult to enforce. In some cases, the receiving countries decide not to register the asylum-seekers at their entry point and let them travel elsewhere in the European Union (which does not always happen, as many asylum-seekers lack the resources to keep traveling). There have also been cases where courts have prohibited authorities from deporting asylum-seekers back to the country where they were supposed to apply for asylum, especially if living conditions for refugees in that country are considered bad. For example, since 2011 several EU members stopped the deportation of asylum-seekers to Greece after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Athens was violating the human rights of a refugee by detaining him under inhumane conditions. Many courts have also halted deportations to Italy.
Another reason the Dublin Regulation is hard to enforce is the tenacity and inventiveness of asylum-seekers. It is common for asylum-seekers to keep moving within the Schengen area and apply for asylum in multiple countries even after they had their fingerprints taken in their country of entry. There are also numerous support groups (both legal and illegal) that help asylum-seekers avoid deportation. Family reunification is also a key factor, as several members of the same family could apply for asylum in different countries and then apply to reside in the same country. Finally, extensive criminal organizations operating in Africa, the Middle East and Europe smuggle people into the European Union.
Many asylum-seekers wait for years to receive an answer to their applications. In countries such as Greece or Bulgaria, the process could take up to two years. In the meantime, these applicants enter a legal limbo where they often cannot legally work or receive welfare benefits and survive by a combination of charity and off-the-books activities. People whose applications rejected are generally offered the chance to voluntarily return to their countries of origin, but they often lack the economic means to go back home.
The most common outcome of the process is for these asylum-seekers to remain illegally in Europe and risk deportation later. Police controls are more common in airports and train stations than on the streets, reducing the chances of deportation once the immigrant has entered a country. The chances of deportation also vary according to the immigrant's country of origin. For example, in 2010 the European Court of Human Rights ordered European countries to halt deportations to Iraq because of the sectarian violence there. In recent months, the court has blocked countries such as Spain and Switzerland from deporting asylum-seekers back to Africa and the Middle East.
Immigration and the EU Crisis
With unemployment on the rise in Europe, immigration has become a very sensitive issue in most EU member states. Countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany have recently announced measures against the abuse of welfare benefits by citizens of other EU countries, while political parties in France have called for the renegotiation of the Schengen agreement. The situation is relatively different in southern Europe, where the main issue is not necessarily EU workers but asylum-seekers from northern Africa and the Middle East. The European crisis coinciding with political crises in countries such as Syria and Iraq has worsened the situation of African and Middle Eastern refugees in these economically strapped countries.
According to Eurostat, the number of applications for asylum in the European Union almost doubled between 2008 and 2013 (from 226,330 to 435,385). In absolute terms, wealthy economies such as Germany, France and Sweden still get the largest number of applications. But in relative terms, the story is quite different. Between the fourth quarter of 2012 and the fourth quarter of 2013, asylum applications grew by 384 percent in Bulgaria and by just 46 percent in Germany. Despite recent complaints by Athens and Madrid, applications in Greece and Spain remained relatively stable. Finally, asylum applications could also be measured by the number of applications per inhabitant. This puts Sweden in the first place by far, as the country saw 5,680 applications per million inhabitants in the final quarter of 2013, versus 1,575 in Germany and 985 in France.
Along with the rise in formal applications for asylum, the European Union has also seen a rise in illegal immigration. According to Frontex, the EU border agency, the number of detected illegal border crossings in the European Union increased by 48 percent between 2012 and 2013 (from 72,500 people to 107,000 people). A quarter of those illegal immigrants came from Syria, reflecting the enduring conflict in the country. Other illegal immigrants came from Eritrea, Afghanistan and Albania. In May, the agency also reported that 42,000 illegal immigrants entered the European Union between January and April, four times the number in the same period last year.
A Political Issue
When it comes to the growing number of asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants, perception is as important as reality. Only a small portion of the people who try to cross the border fences in the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Africa actually succeed, but their tenacity means the issue is in Spanish news headlines permanently. Similarly, episodes such as the shipwreck of a boat carrying northern African immigrants near the island of Lampedusa in October 2013 (in which some 360 people died) offer dramatic footage for Italian newspapers and television channels.
Adding to the economic crisis in Europe, these images offer nationalist parties the opportunity to demand tougher measures against immigration and allow moderate governments to request a renegotiation of European asylum policies. Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, the Bulgarian government has demanded more resources to deal with the increase in refugees. In recent weeks, the Italian government has said that it would put the issue of immigration in the Mediterranean at the core of its political agenda during Rome's semester at the head of the European Union's rotating presidency.
The issue, however, will be as divisive as any in the current European context. Countries in southern Europe will demand a renegotiation of the Dublin Regulation for a fairer distribution of immigrants among EU members, but countries in northern Europe will reply that they are already receiving a significant number of asylum-seekers. As a result, the European Union is more likely to provide financial assistance than to renegotiate its legal framework regarding asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants. The bloc probably will give more funding to Frontex and to national governments to help them house immigrants and refugees.
In absolute terms, the number of asylum-seekers entering EU members is not nearly as significant as the number of economic immigrants entering the countries every year. For example, Germany received roughly 127,000 formal asylum applications in 2013, while 1.2 million economic immigrants entered the country that year. In fact, in 2013 Germany received almost as many workers from Poland alone as it did asylum-seekers in total.
However, both types of migration are connected in the sense that they open the door for political repercussions in the receiving countries. Part of the growing support for nationalist parties in Europe is explained by their strong anti-establishment profile, but a growing number of voters fear that immigration in almost all forms is substantially challenging the cultural homogeneity of their country, stealing jobs from locals, hurting the welfare state and leading to higher crime rates. Even if the evidence for most of these claims is inconclusive, immigration has become a sensitive political issue in most EU member countries and will remain a significant issue for the foreseeable future.
This means that many European countries will probably harden their stance on immigration in the coming years. Europe is slowly moving from the principle of free movement of people to the free movement of workers. The bloc probably will not abolish the free movement of workers any time soon, because it offers companies the possibility of recruiting talented workers from across the Continent. However, countries will impose additional bureaucratic restrictions, particularly for those foreigners claiming unemployment or welfare benefits.
In the specific case of asylum-seekers, countries on the European Union's external borders will react with a combination of stronger controls and deportation at the border, but more relaxed controls once the immigrants manage to enter. These countries will be more likely to tolerate asylum-seekers or even help them go elsewhere in the Continent. The situation has not yet reached a point where countries in northern Europe feel the need to take drastic measures, such as leaving the Schengen agreement and re-establishing border controls. But with no end in sight for the political instability in Syria, Iraq and northern Africa (and criminal organizations smuggling people from across the world into the European Union), Europe will continue to receive large numbers of asylum-seekers. If the European Union fails to reform its asylum policies, the lack of solidarity in the bloc could lead to the restoration of border controls within it.