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'Asylum crisis' in the UK and Europe

About the author
Gil Loescher wrote a column for oD with Arthur Helton on refugees. He was gravely wounded in the attack on the UN in Iraq in 2003 and Arthur was killed.

Even a cursory glance at the headlines of British tabloids these days indicates that the issues of asylum and migration have risen to the top of the national political and public agenda. Asylum seekers are demonised everywhere. They are routinely perceived as cheats, con-men and charlatans. Britain is characterised as the world’s number one refugee magnet.

An examination of the actual numbers of asylum seekers, their countries of origin and their reasons for seeking refuge in the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) reveals that these characterisations are grossly incorrect and unfair. Even a brief enquiry demonstrates that the issue is far more complex than both politicians and the media would have us believe. In People Flow, Theo Veenkamp and his associates have not taken the opportunity of a fundamental rethink to look again at what we now do know about the dimensions of asylum in our globalised world. I think it is important to redress this omission by examining some of the facts and trends of asylum seeking in the EU and the UK.

Asylum seekers in the EU and UK: facts, not myths

While there have been deliberate distortions of asylum seekers in the press, it is true that the numbers of persons travelling to Europe seeking asylum have greatly increased since the early 1980s.

However, there have been peaks and troughs. Asylum applications to EU states grew from some 50,000 in 1983 to more than 684,000 in 1992. After 1993, as increasingly restrictive measures were adopted throughout western Europe, the numbers steadily declined, reaching about 276,000 in 1996. Since then, the total has slowly climbed again, reaching almost 381,600 in 2002 – a level that is still only 56% of the 1992 peak figure.

Of all the EU countries, Germany was by far the largest recipient of asylum seekers during this period, frequently receiving more than 50% of the regional burden. Since 2000, the UK has replaced Germany as the leading recipient of asylum flows to western Europe. Despite the introduction of a series of legislative and administrative measures designed to limit the number of asylum applications the country receives, the numbers of arrivals in the UK have risen relentlessly in recent years: from just over 40,000 in 1997 to over 90,000 in each of the four years 1998–2001, and more than 110,000 in 2002.

But on a per capita basis Britain still receives fewer asylum seekers than many other EU states. When the number of asylum applicants is considered in relation to the country’s total population, it ranks at tenth place in the EU. At the global level the UK ranks very low on the league table, far behind the world’s largest refugee hosting countries who are found in the poorest countries of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Countries of origin and reasons for flight

Where do these asylum seekers come from and what are their reasons for leaving their home countries? A review of statistics collected by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the top source countries generating applicants to EU asylum systems in recent years reveals certain trends.

First, a relatively small number of nationalities account for the majority of asylum applicants in the EU. The former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan together make up nearly half the total. In 2000 the top five source countries for applicants to western Europe and the other twenty-two industrialised countries were the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. In 2001 the top five were Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, and China. In 2002 they were Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, China and Afghanistan.

Second, people tend to seek asylum in their own region or nearby regions; most asylum applicants in western Europe in the past decade have come from Europe itself, the Middle East or western Asia. During 1990-99, the top four source countries of asylum seekers and refugees to the European Union were: former Yugoslavia, 25% (1,043,800); Romania, 9.4% (392,200); Turkey, 8% (335,900); and former USSR, 4.7% (196,600).

Third, the leading source countries have been the same for some years; former Yugoslavia and Turkey have been among the top three every year since 1990 (except for 2000), and Iraq has been a consistent number four or five (and in recent years number one or two).

Fourth, these statistics indicate that many asylum seekers who have arrived in Europe since the early 1990s have come not simply to escape poverty, but frequently to flee grave internal disorder and civil strife or severe repression. The break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991 and the subsequent brutal conflict and ethnic cleansing led to a marked increase in numbers of refugees; human rights abuses, conflict and repression of their Kurdish minority populations have led to greater flows from Turkey and Iraq; conflict and persecution in Afghanistan, first by warlords and subsequently by the Taleban, caused an outpouring of refugees; a civil war and insurgency in Sri Lanka have resulted in a steady flow of Tamil asylum seekers; a failure in democratisation and a simultaneous relaxation of border controls in Romania led to an increase in arrivals, particularly of Roma (or Gypsies), in western Europe; and repression in Zimbabwe has been sending large numbers of new asylum seekers to the UK.

A central feature of the mass character of recent population displacements is that people move because they fear political persecution and because both their means of livelihood and their dignity have been stripped away from them. They leave because their families and communities have been disrupted by a series of violent shocks, the full effects of which they can barely comprehend, let alone measure and predict. In such circumstances people panic and flee for safety.

People also feel compelled to move to the relative safety and stability of western countries from their first countries of asylum in regions of refugee origin because in many cases they feel threatened, or cannot find a satisfactory solution to their plight in these places.

The majority of today’s twelve million refugees are trapped in a protracted limbo, unable to return home, and without the prospect either of a solution in the country where they have sought asylum or of resettlement abroad.

Mixed nature of people on the move

Exodus is also fed by an intervening ‘migration industry’ comprising agents, recruiters, organisers, fixers and brokers, some with connections to international criminal syndicates, who sustain links with countries of origin and destination. Points of departure and arrival are also determined by networks of friendship, kin and ethnicity, organised by migrants themselves.

In this complex situation, it is not always easy to differentiate between ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’. Armed conflict, poverty, political and economic instability, and environmental disasters all contribute to the formation of mixed flows of people on the move. However, as UNHCR has noted, ‘the distinction between voluntary and involuntary population movements, between the refugee and the so-called “economic migrant”, is not always as clear and definite as it may appear to be.’

In reality, persecution and violent conflict often overlap with, or may be provoked or aggravated by, economic marginalisation, population pressure, environmental degradation or poor governance. UNHCR has drawn attention to the fact that not only do refugees increasingly move within a broader mixed flow which includes both forced and voluntary movements, but more of them now resort to migrant smugglers as one way to leave their country.

At the same time, large numbers of economic migrants not in need of international protection are using the asylum procedures to try to gain entry to the UK and other EU states. In the absence of viable, legal migration options, people who are not refugees are seeking to enter countries of their choice through the asylum channel: effectively, often the only entrance open to them.

Faced with having to make distinctions between good and bad claims for refugee status, between forced and free migration, between refugees and migrants, EU governments have been granting a smaller percentage of asylum applicants refugee status during the past few years.

As approval rates of asylum applications decline steadily, EU governments maintain that widespread abuse of the asylum system exists in the west and that a substantial proportion of those who apply for asylum are not bona fide refugees but opportunists, or at best economic migrants.

Politicians and the media not only perceive that their governments have lost control of national borders, they are also alarmed that increasing backlogs of asylum cases and rising costs put heavy strains on their asylum systems. The estimated $10 billion spent each year by the industrialised states on their asylum systems is substantially greater than the modest $800 million that UNHCR spends on the 19 million refugees and displaced persons in less prosperous countries around the world.

These concerns have increased xenophobia and anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiments throughout Europe. Since September 2001 and the preoccupation with fighting global terrorism, governments perceive that mass influxes not only threaten social and cultural cohesion in their societies, but also, in some cases, even endanger national security. In the more sensationalist press and media, asylum seekers are associated with terrorism, radical Islam and political violence.

While everyone should take serious notice of these developments and steps must be taken to improve the way in which refugee policy is handled, the restrictive measures that have come to dominate policy-making and recent immigration enforcement measures in Britain and other EU member states do not sufficiently discriminate between asylum seekers and other kinds of migrants, thereby failing to safeguard the right of refugees to seek protection.

Rather than impose draconian restrictions on the movement of people, we should address the conditions that cause them to flee. We should ensure that they receive adequate protection and assistance in their regions of origin, and be prepared to support refugee flight by offering victims of persecution and violence asylum in the industrialised states.

This is an edited version of part of an article that the author co-authored for International Affairs (May 2003), and part of a paper delivered at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and the US Committee for Refugees (April 2003).

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