This piece was co-authored by Stephen Booth and Pawel Swidlicki.

23 September 2015

How has the EU responded to the migration crisis so far?

Over the past few years, the EU has been struggling with a mounting migration crisis on its southern borders. Thousands of people have sought to reach the relative security and prosperity of Europe, many of whom have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. According to the UNHCR, some 219,000 people made this journey in 2014, up from around 60,000 in 2013, while around 478,000 people have arrived this year already.

In the last few weeks and months the EU’s response to the overwhelming numbers of people arriving has been reactive, un-coordinated and has resulted in stark political divisions. This was illustrated by Germany’s decision to suspend the Dublin system for Syrian refugees, a move widely criticised by other member states for exacerbating the ‘pull factor’ encouraging more people to make the dangerous journey to Europe. The breakdown of the Dublin system – meant to ensure that asylum seekers are registered and their applications processed in the first EU state they enter – has led to some border controls being re-imposed within the normally passport-free Schengen area. Meanwhile, Hungary has been criticised for building a fence to secure its border with Serbia – a move that other states are now increasingly recognising is necessary.

The European Commission has proposed a package of measures to deal with the crisis. The most controversial is to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers from frontline countries, Italy and Greece, to other member states – forced through yesterday by majority vote despite opposition from four central and eastern member states: Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania.

Not only is it hard to see this as anything else but the trampling of national democratic preferences which is likely to have significant and far-reaching consequences, it will not address the underlying problems behind the refugee crisis – the number of refugees in Europe far exceeds the number which will be relocated, with Germany expecting up to 1 million refugees alone this year. In addition, supporters of the scheme have not credibly answered the question of how refugees will be prevented from moving elsewhere within the EU, and how refugees will be forced onto unwilling member states.

Other proposals include better co-ordination to return migrants to their countries of origin, the establishment of ‘hotspots’ to process large numbers of asylum claims in the EU’s frontline states and outside the EU’s borders, and greater resources for the EU’s border force Frontex.

Only now are EU leaders set to consider the root causes of the issues: the situation in migrants’ countries of origin, neighbouring countries and transit countries. Only if the EU starts to understand and address the ‘push factors’ can it hope to better manage the situation. Unfortunately, the row over relocation quotas has used up precious time and toxified the agenda which has hindered, and will likely continue to hinder, the search for practical solutions.

The EU’s migration crisis is multi-faceted

Almost 400,000 people claimed asylum in the EU in the first six months of 2015 – while this does not capture the full scale of irregular migration into the EU as it does not include the refugees already in the EU who have not yet made an asylum claim or illegal economic migrants, looking at which people make up this figure illustrates the different challenges the EU faces.

Although the ongoing war in Syria has been a big driver of refugees, between January and June, Syrians only accounted for 18.4% of asylum claims in the EU. It should be noted this proportion is expected to increase significantly over the course of the year as many more Syrians have reached the EU over the past couple of months. Nevertheless, the mix of nationalities indicates that there are likely to be a number of different drivers of recent migration to the EU, which are likely to require different responses.

Aside from Afghanistan and Iraq, other nationalities featuring near the top of the list that come from highly unstable and/or repressive states include Pakistanis, Eritreans, Ukrainians and Somalis. However, a big portion of asylum seekers come from the Western Balkan countries – in total, these six countries accounted for 26.6% of the total asylum claimants in the first half of 2015.

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The EU must distinguish between the acute and chronic elements of the crisis


An increase in Syrian refugees has caused this acute crisis

It is clear that the crisis of the last few months has been caused by increasing numbers of Syrians making the journey to Europe. Over the course of 2015, the focus of the crisis has shifted from Italy, which previously experienced the bulk of Mediterranean migration, to Greece.  According to the UNHCR, just over 50,000 people, mostly from Syria, arrived in Greece in July; this compares with 43,500 for the whole of 2014. The agency estimates that so far this year, almost 350,000 refugees arrived in Greece by sea.

The majority of refugees arriving in Greece do not claim asylum in that country but move on to reach a different EU member state via the Western Balkans. The EU’s Dublin rules under which refugees ought to apply for asylum in the first EU member state they reach had de facto broken down long before Germany suspended them with regards to new arrivals from Syria.

This shift to the Eastern Mediterranean and West Balkan route has been triggered primarily by Syrian refugees leaving their temporary accommodation in neighbouring countries to try to get into Europe – according to a UNHCR survey, 60% of refugees arriving in Greece said they had previously spent time in Turkey. While their lives may not be in immediate danger, hopes for a resolution to the fighting in Syria are receding, and the UNHCR notes that, “after years of rising pressure, the economies and infrastructure of many refugee-hosting countries are buckling, making it increasingly difficult for refugees to find work, shelter, health care, and education. As humanitarian appeals to assist them go underfunded, many simply move on.”

As the graph below shows, Europe has a patchy record in providing humanitarian assistance to the countries accommodating the majority of the over 4 million Syrians who have fled their country. In the absence of stable and secure conditions in refugee camps in the region, an increasing number of refugees have decided to undertake the journey into Europe.

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A number of large EU member states are clearly not pulling their weight – the UK is by far the most significant source of humanitarian aid among individual member states, with Germany the only other member state to have made a meaningful contribution. The EU’s pooled aid budget, to which the UK again makes a significant contribution, is playing a role but even Japan and Canada who are less affected by the crisis have made larger contributions than the likes of France, Italy and Spain.

The EU’s asylum and migration system faces chronic pressures

As the table below demonstrates, some EU countries face large influxes of certain nationalities while others, such as the UK, experience a much greater variety.

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One trend that is clearly evident is the tendency for African migrants to arrive in Italy and for Syrians and Afghans to arrive in Greece. Therefore, despite both Italy and Greece being considered frontline states, addressing African migration, likely to be a far more long-term challenge, will require a different set of policy solutions compared to the Syrian problem which is more acute.

The figures also clearly show that Germany in particular has been facing a disproportionate number of asylum seekers from the Western Balkans, handling 88.6% and 84.2% of EU-wide applications from Serbia and Albania respectively. Germany is also the single largest recipient of asylum applications from Kosovans – 48.5% of the total. Overall, some 44.5% of asylum seekers in Germany in the first six months of this year have come from the Western Balkans. They are therefore making a significant contribution to the country’s refugee influx, estimated by German politicians to total between 800,000 and 1 million this year.

This underlines the extent to which the asylum system in the EU was in bad shape before the recent surge – as recently as the first quarter of 2015, the single largest group of asylum claimants were from the Western Balkans. While these countries certainly face economic and political challenges, particularly around discrimination of the Roma, these are not on par with what is happening in the likes of Syria or Eritrea; with the exception of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, they are themselves official candidates for EU membership.

Although the prospects for their nationals being granted asylum status are very low, they take up the capacity and resources of the asylum system which could be better spent on refugees from other parts of the world, and arguably contribute towards undermining public confidence in the system.  Indeed, the Europe Director at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, Vincent Cochetel singled out Germany in a recent interview for not doing enough to return economic migrants from Western Balkan countries who have claimed asylum, arguing that they “should be returned, in order to leave space for those in need of international protection.” Even the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić recently went as far as to say Germany should stop paying cash benefits to Serbs claiming asylum there.

The problem is that there has been considerable resistance within Germany to designating these countries as safe – Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia were only designated as such last year while Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro have not been given this status. This is why Germany has been supporting of an EU-wide safe country of origin list as this would allow domestic politics to be bypassed. Most other EU member states consider these countries as safe countries of origin but in Germany this has been seen as controversial which has exacerbated its own refugee crisis within the broader EU context.

If merely reaching the EU is equated with receiving asylum the crisis will be unsustainable

The EU has a consistently poor record of returning failed asylum applicants to their countries of origin which means the system is less able to respond to unexpected influxes as in the case of Syrians. In 2014 for instance, only 41% of third country nationals ordered to leave were returned.

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In terms of their demographic makeup, the figures show that those seeking asylum in the EU tend to be predominantly young and male. Over half (55.8%) are aged between 18 and 34 while almost 1 in 5 (18.1%) are under the age of 14. In terms of gender, 72.4% are male and 27.6% are female. This does not necessarily mean that these people are less likely to be refugees but simply illustrates that the current situation, whereby simply reaching the EU’s shores is equated with being able to stay in the EU, encourages predominantly young men to make the dangerous trip to the EU in the hope that their families will be able to join them at a later stage.

In terms of refugees, this not only creates a perverse incentive for people to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean, but also means that many of the most vulnerable people are likely to be left behind in countries of origin or refugee camps in neighbouring areas. Rather than participate in the Commission’s plans to relocate asylum seekers within the EU, the UK Government has decided to resettle refuges directly from UN-registered refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon with a specific focus on the most vulnerable – Germany is the only other EU member state that is taking a significant number of refugees directly from the camps.


The EU’s response so far has been back to front. The issue of relocating migrants from frontline states is putting the cart before the horse. Without a medium to long-term strategy to manage the flows of people, the mandatory relocation scheme has sown political division without addressing the fundamental issues and potentially exacerbated the incentive to reach Europe.

Unless the link between simply reaching the EU and an expectation of asylum or the ability to remain is broken, the numbers of people trying to reach Europe are likely to be unsustainable. The Commission’s proposals to speed up returns and create processing centres at and beyond the EU’s borders are a welcome step. Greater border security will also have to be part of the response. Only once these elements are in place is it likely that individual governments will be willing to remove border controls within the Schengen area.

It is welcome that today’s EU leaders’ summit will start to address the root causes of the crisis. It is clear that the EU faces both acute and chronic challenges. Once these are identified, the EU should be capable of formulating targeted responses to each of them and making them more manageable.

The growing numbers arriving from Syria has created the acute crisis. EU member states could do more to help those people in the region through humanitarian aid and better equipped camps; it should be remembered that neighbouring countries are housing around 4 million refugees. It is perfectly legitimate to debate whether EU states including the UK could resettle more refugees from the camps, but this should be part of a coordinated, managed international effort with the aim of helping the most vulnerable. But public opinion is only likely to be won over if the process is better managed. Security and military means of securing safe havens for refugees within Syria may also be considered, but again this is also an issue for wider international discussion.

The problem of Western Balkan asylum seekers is largely specific to Germany and is eminently solvable – the establishment of an EU safe country of origin list should give Berlin sufficient political cover to speed up the return of failed asylum seekers from these countries. The EU already gives these countries substantial pre-accession aid and it ought to insist on steps including better protection for minorities in return.

Finally, there remains the question of chronic problem countries such as Afghanistan and Eritrea, which will produce steady flows of refugees, as well as the question of migrants from largely stable countries in Africa who are motivated predominantly by economic considerations. There are no easy solutions to these problems and they will also require wider international cooperation. However, the EU would find it much easier to cope if its asylum system was fundamentally sound, which at the moment it is not.