Data show how manageable Europe’s refugee crisis could be

Refugees from Afghanistan walk after crossing the border from Serbia into Hungary.
Refugees from Afghanistan walk after crossing the border from Serbia into Hungary.
Image: Reuters/Laszlo Balogh
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Malin Björk, a Swedish member of the European Parliament (MEP), worries that Europe is not doing enough to solve its ongoing refugee crisis. “I think Sweden could take more,” she said. “Considering the seriousness of the situation around us, we’re not taking enough people.”

Last month, the United Nation’s refugee agency (UNHCR) reported that global refugee figures, driven by the war in Syria and other conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, exceed 50 million people—the highest number since the Second World War. Unsurprisingly, there’s been a corresponding spike in people trying to enter the EU to apply for asylum, often making dangerous trips across the Mediterranean to reach their destination.

After a boat full of migrants capsized, drowning at least 800 in April, the European Commission proposed measures to address the crisis. This included a binding refugee quota system, as well as plans to resettle 20,000 refugees from outside the EU and relocate 40,000 asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy—the main countries on the receiving end of the boats—to other European states over the next two years.

But less than two months later, member countries can barely agree on anything when it comes to refugees. At a heated summit in June, the plan was downgraded to voluntary instead of binding, and limited to a one-time deal, leaving many worried that no one will step up to offer places.

“If you do not agree with the figure of 40,000 [placements for asylum seekers], you do not deserve to call yourself Europeans,” Italy’s premier Matteo Renzi said during the summit. “Either there’s solidarity, or don’t waste our time,” he said, according to a conference attendant.

With all the talk of burden sharing and solidarity, it’s worth taking a look at the numbers. What do asylum policies actually look like across the EU, and what would a fairer system mean?

Resettling the world’s refugees

Currently, the EU makes it all but impossible to apply for asylum without first illegally entering the country. This is important because one of the main reasons the EU is rethinking their policy now is due to the dramatic increase in refugees coming to Europe on unseaworthy boats owned and operated by smugglers; and the correspondingly high death toll in such trips. But many of these people take the boat trip in the first place because no other legal pathways are available.

Last year, 219,000 people took dangerous, irregular routes to Europe by land and sea, and about 3,500 drowned, according to the UN. This year it estimates that already 137,000 people arrived to EU countries by boat, a third of them from Syria, and many others from Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq. There have been at least 1,867 deaths at sea in 2015 thus far.

Though many would-be refugees are able to enter the EU via airplane on tourist visas and apply for asylum once they touch down, for those displaced and fleeing the chaos of war, or living under an authoritarian government, there’s no chance of getting an exit visa. Virtually the only option is trying their luck on the boats crossing the Mediterranean, or land routes through Eastern Europe—though most Eastern border countries have built or are in the process of building walls to keep migrants out.

Michael Diedring, the secretary general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, calls this dynamic backward: “When you look at the amount of money that a Syrian needs to pay a smuggler to Europe,” typically $2,000 to $4,000, “you could fly to Europe first class with that money.”

Increasing refugee-resettlement programs, which relocate people with refugee status in countries outside the EU to a member country, might help alleviate the problem.

So far the numbers have been insignificant. Between 2008 and 2014, the 28 member states of the EU (EU-28) never resettled more than 7,400 refugees per year, and some countries, like Poland, Estonia and Latvia, never resettled refugees at all. This can be compared with another region of comparable size and economic resources: the United States, which manages to resettle an average of 66,000 people with refugee-status from around the world every year.

Of course, the EU is an unwieldy conglomerate of member countries with their own national laws and decision-making bodies, not a federal country like the United States. Martin Schain, a professor of politics at New York University who is working on a book comparing border politics in the United States and Europe, told Quartz, “The EU as an entity has very little power with regard to immigration, it’s completely the opposite of the US.” Since member countries retain national sovereignty, they also have separate ways of managing migration. “It’s as if [the US states of] Arizona and Florida and Texas would be the primary movers with regard to immigration,” he added.

Schain attributes some of the difference in resettlement policy to distinctions between US and European history. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the country began its first large-scale refugee resettlement program, relocating hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from Southeast Asia. Soon after, US legislators passed the Refugee Act, which standardized resettlement services and continues to operate in 2015.

But Schain theorizes that the differences also derive from a question of attitude. “The US has a serious immigration policy, as flawed as it is. There is literally no EU country that has an immigration policy that says how many immigrants they will admit, under which categories and so forth,” he said. “It’s a very big difference, not only in law, but a difference in spirit as well.”

Even though resettling 20,000 refugees to the EU over the next two years seems like a drop in the ocean—considering the monumental need—experts and advocacy groups say it at least represents a shift in the discussion.

“Its a very positive step,” Philippa Candler, UNHCR’s head of policy and legal support in Brussels, told Quartz . “A few months ago you couldn’t talk about relocation or a distribution mechanism in the EU.”

Burden sharing across the EU

Refugee “burden sharing,” as it’s often called, is another contentious point being negotiated among the EU-28. It’s still not clear whether the countries will succeed in relocating 40,000 new refugees over the next two years, even under a voluntary mechanism; but if they do, it may open the way for rethinking the current system.

Under current EU law, asylum-seekers are supposed to apply in the first country where they arrive—but this means that the countries on the outer border of the EU are affected disproportionately. Italy and Greece, the main receivers of boat arrivals, argue that they shouldn’t be responsible for Europe’s migration crisis solely due to geography.

On the other side, asylum seekers make extreme efforts to subvert the regulations and get to the country they prefer—sometimes for reasons of family, language, perceived economic opportunities, or access to better asylum conditions. Experts on EU migration say Germany, the UK, and Sweden tend to be top of the list. Italy and Greece, feeling overburdened, and well aware of the fact that their countries are often more way stations than final destinations, often allow migrants and asylum seekers to pass through their borders anyway, without processing them. The system simply doesn’t work.

But what would be a fairer way to handle distribution? One way to look at it is by considering asylum recognition rates within the context of national population.

While Italy and Greece are the main countries calling for fairer asylum policies, they actually end up accepting some of the least by this measure. And Greece, in particular, has rejected an average of 96% of asylum requests on the first round since 2008. Other countries making noise in the asylum debates, like Hungary and Poland, also accept low percentages of asylum-seekers. By comparison, small countries like Sweden, Malta, and Belgium are pulling more than their fair share of weight.

And while 137,000 new boat arrivals this year sounds like a lot, refugee advocates and experts say that it is not the unmanageable influx it is sometimes made out to be. Not a single European country made it onto UNHCR’s list of top-ten major refugee-hosting countries in 2014. Europe’s neighbor Turkey, population 74 million, has made space for almost 2 million Syrian refugees since 2011. The EU, with 507 million people, has accepted only a 536,450 refugees in that time, according to the European Commission.

Population, of course, isn’t the only measure that can be used to engineer a fairer distribution of asylum responsibilities. Benjamin Ward, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe division, says considerations like size of economy, the unemployment rate, and current capacity to provide adequate reception conditions and integration services should also factor into how asylum-seekers are distributed.

“Ultimately, if there’s going to be a common European asylum system, then that system has to be based upon a solidarity and an equitable sharing of responsibility across all 28 EU countries,” he told Quartz.

Others point out that the same goals could be met by different means. “There are two ways to look at this: You can move people physically or you can move funds,” said Diedring,

In April, the EU agreed to double emergency aid to Italy, Greece, and Malta, to €50 million. The money is meant to improve reception center conditions and pay for extra staff and resources.

Not everyone kicked out goes home

As a coda, it’s useful to remember that looking at the recognition-rate for asylum-seekers is not the entire picture of what these countries are dealing with. Not all those who are rejected return to their home countries. In fact, deportation or voluntary returns to non-EU countries are less common than one might think.

The data show that while an average of 516,219 non-EU citizens are ordered to leave each year, less than half are typically returned, even after accounting for a lag time.

The gap between those ordered to leave the EU and those actually repatriated can be attributed to a number of factors. Some do return on their own, outside of deportation or organized voluntary return programs. Others may not be able to be return because they lost or destroyed their documents, do not have any legal citizenship status at home, or because the country they are from will not accept them back. Many manage to slip through the cracks, carving out a living in Europe’s underground, informal economies.

How do we fix the system?

The refugee crisis is especially dire right now, and it’s not only the EU’s responsibility to find solutions. Some, like François Crépeau, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, have urged more developed countries to band together to meet the unprecedented need. In an interview with The Guardian, he said countries in Europe, along with the United States, Australia, and Canada, should collectively agree to resettle 1 million Syrians over the next five years.

But to do any of this, Europe will need more momentum and unity than is indicated by recent bickering. “The situation in Europe can only get worse,” Martin Schain predicts. “It’s a terrible system and it brings into question this delicate balance within Europe with regard to open borders and closed borders.”

Michael Diedring is more optimistic, but also blamed a lack of political will for the myriad roadblocks to a long-term deal. “There is a technical solution for this,” he said. “So it has become a political debate, not a technical debate.”

Ultimately, as with so many recent issues, Europe will need to decide if it has the generosity and spirit to live up to its own ideals. Though member countries may be struggling with economic and political problems of their own, the data suggests they have the capacity to step up during this crisis. And, according to their own laws and customs, they have a responsibility to.

“It should not be a question of what is doable because the EU and the member states have signed up to legal obligations under international law,” Diedring said, pointing to the and the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which enshrine the right to asylum. “You cannot agree to all of these responsibilities and then try to put a cap on that.”