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Europe’s Asylum Crisis, Explained
A deep dive into the numbers plus the policies of France, Italy and Netherlands.
Europe is the throes of another asylum crisis. The 27 countries of the EU plus Norway and Switzerland, which have open borders with the bloc, received some 98,000 asylum applications in September, the most in six years. Figures for the first nine months of 2022 suggest that most, and possibly all, member states will match the records of 2015, when 1.3 million people applied for asylum in the EU.
Some 548,000 asylum seekers are waiting for a decision on whether they can stay.
The figures include few Ukrainians, who can remain in the EU for up to three years without applying for asylum.
I’ll take a deep dive into the numbers before looking at how three member states are coping with the high influx: France, Italy and Netherlands.
Where asylum seekers are coming from
Last year, of the 631,000 people who applied for asylum in the EU, 115,000 (18 percent) were Syrian and 99,000 (16 percent) were Afghan.
This year’s figures are similar. In September, 15,000 out of 98,000 asylum seekers were Syrian (16 percent) and 14,000 Afghan (14 percent).
Other large groups are Iraqis, Moroccans, Nigerians, Somalians, Turks and Venezuelans.
Where asylum seekers go
Germany takes 30 percent of all asylum seekers in the EU. France is in second place with 19 percent. Italy takes 8 percent, the Netherlands 4 percent.
Asylum requests, however, do not cover all arrivals. Italy receives far more arrivals than asylum requests. Many travel on to seek status in Germany, France or the Netherlands.
Another relevant figure is the number of asylum seekers waiting for a decision. The Netherlands has a large backlog of cases.
There is also non-asylum immigration. 38 million (8 percent) of EU residents were born elsewhere. For comparison, 15 percent of America’s population is foreign-born, 21 percent of Canada’s and 30 percent of Australia’s.
So far this year, 2 million people have migrated to Europe. A third to reunite with families. The largest group were the women and children of Afghan and Syrian refugees, who initially traveled alone to apply for asylum. Another fifth came to work.
Germany takes the most immigrants overall: around 900,000, a fifth of the EU total, in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic. Spain is in second place, taking many immigrants from South America. France received some 375,000 immigrants per year in the last decade, Italy 300,000 and the Netherlands 200,000 (5 percent of the EU total).
Why the influx is rising
Various factors have contributed to a rise in asylum applications:
The end of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Hyperinflation and food insecurity in Venezuela.
Repression of dissidents, especially followers of the Gülen movement, and Kurds by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey.
Who can stay
34 percent of asylum requests were granted in 2021. Another 6 percent of asylum seekers, the largest group Venezuelan, were officially denied but allowed to remain in the EU on humanitarian grounds.
Many countries distinguish between refugee status, for those fleeing war or a natural disaster, and “subsidiary protection” for those who are at risk in their home country because of their gender identity, political beliefs, religion or sexuality. The Netherlands doesn’t, which may be why its recognition rate is high: 59 percent of asylum seekers were allowed to stay in 2021.
Syrians are almost always accepted as refugees. Recognition of other nationalities is uneven.
EU-wide, the recognition rate for Afghans was 64 percent last year; 72 percent including humanitarian exemptions. The Netherlands recognized 85 percent of Afghan asylum claims.
It also recognized 93 percent of Turkish claims when France recognized only 16 percent.
The recognition rate for Venezuelans was below one-third last year, except in Italy, where it was 85 percent.
Italy was also generous to Iraqis, allowing 83 percent to remain.
Who is denied
Algerians, Moroccans and other North and West Africans are usually denied asylum unless they qualify for subsidiary protection.
North and West Africans are a larger share in French applications, explaining that country’s overall low acceptance rate of 28 percent.
Every year, some 500,000 foreign nationals are ordered to leave the EU. Only one in three do. The rest remain in a country illegally, where they are vulnerable to exploitation and liable to end up in crime. Or they try for asylum in another EU country. Where they will almost certainly be rejected again.
The EU has agreements with some twenty countries for the return of illegal aliens, including Turkey. But not with the North and West African countries that are the main source of unwanted asylum seekers. Morocco is notorious for refusing to take its people back.
For comparison: immigration officials remove between 300,000 and 400,000 people from the United States every year.
The government of France has proposed to:
Limit appeals for rejected asylum seekers from twelve to four;
Make it easier to expel foreign criminals;
Speed up deportations; and
Create renewable one-year residence permits for undocumented aliens who want to work.
The goal, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin explained, is to “take in more quickly those who deserve asylum and refuse more quickly those who cannot obtain it on our soil.”
The number of foreign nationals ordered to leave France has doubled in a decade to 122,000 in 2019: almost a quarter of the EU total. About 15 percent actually leave.
Darmanin’s proposals may not make it. Deportations are opposed by the left, work permits by the right. President Emmanuel Macron’s liberals lost their majority in June.
Longer term, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne told the National Assembly she wants to get a better handle on immigration:
It is legitimate to raise the question of our migration policy: to say who we want, who we can welcome, and who we don’t want, who we can’t welcome.
France was largely unaffected by the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015-16, when it received 76,000 and 84,000 asylum applications, respectively, up from 64,000 in 2014.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, France did see an increase: from 138,000 asylum seekers in 2018 to 151,000 in 2019.
Overall immigration has also trended up: from under 300,000 in 2009 to 385,000.
Giorgia Meloni, the most right-wing prime minister in postwar Italian history, won the election in September on a promise to reduce immigration. Years earlier, she even appeared to endorse the far-right conspiracy theory that there is a deliberate plan to substitute native white Europeans for black African migrants.
Meloni has closed Italian ports for ships of nongovernmental organizations that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, arguing they are abetting illegal immigration and human smuggling. One such boat eventually docked in France. An angry French government retaliated by refusing to resettle 3,500 refugees from Italy under an EU plan to distribute asylum seekers across the 27 member states. But that plan had failed anyway: just 177 refugees were relocated from Italy to France previously. EU-wide, 2 percent of refugees have been resettled.
Some 95,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea this year, up from 63,000 in the whole of 2021. That is still below the records of 2014, 2015 and 2016, when more than 150,000 migrants arrived in Italy by boat each year.
Asylum applications also remain below the 123,000 peak of 2016, but the acceptance rate has gone up. Under the last right-wing government (2018-19), just one in five asylum seekers were recognized. That has gone up to 42 percent.
519,000 people are believed to live in Italy illegally, 1 percent of the population.
To get a grip on the influx — and avoid deaths at sea — Meloni has proposed to set up EU asylum centers in North Africa.
Asylum has split the Dutch coalition government. The Christian Union and left-liberal D66 are against reining in asylum rights. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s right-liberal VVD (of which I am a member) insists on stricter controls. The centrist Christian Democrats, echoing Borne and Meloni, want a handle on the influx, possibly by introducing Canadian-style quotas.
This being the Netherlands, the four parties did a deal that satisfied no one: family reunifications were suspended against the wishes of the Christian parties and D66 while local governments were forced to provide shelter for asylum seekers over the objections of the right wing of the VVD.
Shelter is desperately needed. There are currently 52,000 immigrants in shelter, up from 36,000 last year and 29,000 in 2016. A third — 17,000 — have been granted asylum but can’t afford to buy or rent a home, and there is a shortage of subsidized housing.
Processing asylum applications takes up to a year due to a backlog in the immigration services.
Annual asylum applications in the Netherlands hovered around 15,000 until 2014, when 25,000 asylum seekers were registered. 45,000 arrived the following year. 31,000 residence permits were issued in 2015 and a record 34,000 in 2016.
Until 2021, around one in two asylum seekers were allowed to stay. The recognition rate rose to 59 percent that year. Partly due to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and partly due to the repression of Gülenists in Turkey. But immigration authorities also became more lenient in order to clear their backlog of cases.
Half of rejected asylum seekers are escorted out of the country. The other half are presumed to leave voluntarily. It’s unclear how many do. The last estimate, from 2017-18, was that between 23,000 and 58,000 foreign nationals resided in the Netherlands illegally.
They are a disproportionate share of criminals. Half of all arrests made in Amsterdam for thefts and petty crimes are undocumented Eastern Europeans and North Africans. That is up from 35 percent in 2019.
Prime Minister Rutte has promised concrete measures to “substantially” reduce the influx of asylum seekers. The Dutch liberal party leader in the European Parliament, and vice-chair of the Renew group, Malik Azmani, has made the same proposal as Meloni: putting European asylum centers in North Africa.