Florian Trauner unpacks why the likely adoption of a new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum is unlikely to halt the competition between member states to take fewer asylum seekers.
In modern societies, competition is generally viewed positively. Competition means outdoing competitors and striving for victory. But competition can also go wrong. And one such case is EU member states’ competition to take fewer asylum seekers.
States at the external EU border receive disproportionally more arrivals than other member states due to difficulty of air travel for those without legal documentation. In the first six months of 2023, nearly half of all detections of irregular crossings at the EU borders were made in the Central Mediterranean route towards Italy. The arrival of 10,000 migrants in Lampedusa in one week was a highly reported on event in September 2023.
More than 1 million asylum applications are expected in the EU in 2023, with Syrians and Afghans lodging the most applications. The EU member states in southern Europe have been reluctant to shoulder the responsibility for newly arrived migrants and have long called for more solidarity and cooperation in this area. Whilst the EU has been operating a ‘Common European Asylum System’ since 2013, member states are currently not legally obliged to take in asylum seekers from their southern or eastern neighbours at the EU external border. EU rules as they stand are primarily focused on clarifying lines of responsibilities and ensuring comparable asylum procedures and standards.
Faced with high migratory pressures and rising anti-migration parties, this system has proven inadequate. Member states have (informally) started to compete with one another on how to reduce the number of asylum applications they are receiving.
EU rules have been stretched, re-interpreted or openly ignored. States at the external EU border including Italy, Greece or Spain have often refrained from registering newly arrived migrants. If these migrants then move further north, these states avoid responsibility for their asylum applications. In reaction, five Schengen zone member states (Austria, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Norway) have reintroduced permanent border controls on their EU neighbours.
States may also restrict access to national asylum procedures to disincentivise migrants from coming. Hungary, for example, legally requires migrants to declare their intention to claim asylum at consulates in neighbouring countries. Migrants already in Hungary therefore have to leave again. Other Eastern European member states have also used emergency legislation to justify national derogations from EU asylum rules.
The de facto competition between member states has led to highly diverging numbers of asylum applications. According to Eurostat, Cyprus had 25 asylum applications per 1,000 inhabitants in 2022, the highest number in the EU. Austria came second with 12.5 applications. At the other end of the spectrum, Hungary had 0.0 asylum applications per 1,000 inhabitants in 2022. In absolute numbers, Hungary had 45 asylum applications with a population of almost 10 million. The share of positive decisions in the total number of asylum decisions in the EU was 40% in 2022. Yet, here again, there is much divergence – with the likelihood of getting protected status varying for nationalities depending on where they submit an asylum application. For instance, Afghans had a recognition rate of 70% in France in early 2023, while it was only 28% in Belgium.
After eight years of negotiations, reform of the EU’s asylum policy is now reaching a conclusion. Member states have agreed on a joint position and a compromise is currently finalised with the European Parliament. Yet, the new Pact will not lead to a fully supranational policy, for instance common EU asylum procedures. Member states will still decide whether an asylum application gets approved, even if standards and procedures will be regulated more tightly.
Importantly, member states have opposed the more ambitious plans of the European Commission to relocate asylum seekers. The current proposal only foresees a modest EU-wide relocation quota of about 30,000 people a year. The obligation to relocate asylum seekers within the EU can be avoided altogether if member states provide other support including financial contributions to the EU’s asylum system.
The new Pact puts an emphasis on what is going to happen directly at or close to the EU external border. Member states are supposed to get more scope for restrictive measures, for instance fast-track border procedures and a more systematic detention of certain groups of migrants. Where migrants have transited or are from a third country considered ‘safe’, they may be returned more quickly to that country. Member states may also be given discretion to deviate from normal asylum rules if a non-EU government ‘instrumentalises’ migration for political purposes, or numbers increase to a level perceived as a ‘crisis’.
Returning more migrants arriving irregularly or under fake protection claims is central to this strategy. Yet, the EU may not be able to achieve this objective. In a recently published study, we looked at the rate at which the EU has returned irregular migrants to non-EU states over a period of 11 years. With a few exceptions in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, the EU’s return rate has decreased since 2008 – even though the EU has signed a whole list of formal and informal readmission agreements with third countries.
The strategy proposed by the member states for the Pact will therefore be difficult to realise. Fewer (undocumented) migrants will be let in; if they still manage to come, they will be processed quickly and close to the external border – and then quickly returned if need be. In this case – and only in this case – the pressures on the asylum systems of member states will likely go down.
However, the EU remains ill-equipped for the alternative – and more likely scenario. The number of new arrivals remains high, procedures at the borders are slow and the reception capacities of (a few) member states get stretched. The return of rejected asylum seekers takes place at smaller numbers than hoped for by the EU.
In this scenario, member states will likely (continue to) embark on restrictive national practices in efforts to make asylum seekers go to their neighbours instead. While the EU’s asylum policy needs more cooperation, competition risks remaining a dominant feature.
By Professor Florian Trauner, Vice Dean for Research at the Brussels School of Governance, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), and co-director of the VUB’s Interdisciplinary Centre of Expertise on Migration and Minorities (BIRMM).