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Understanding Migration and Asylum in the European Union

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What is a migrant?

The word “migrant” describes a person who leaves home to seek a new life in another region or country. The word is used broadly. It covers people fleeing war, violence, and natural catastrophes, or seeking to escape poverty. It includes those who move through legal channels—to take a job in another country or region, for instance, or to rejoin family members—as well as those who move across borders without a visa or government approval (the latter is often called irregular or undocumented migration).

What is a refugee?

Broadly, the word “refugee” describes a civilian fleeing danger, such as violence or natural disasters. Under international law, refugees who cannot return to their home countries due to fear of persecution are entitled to claim protection, or asylum, in the country they are in.

Those claiming this right—asylum seekers—are required to file a formal application to receive refugee status, which brings with it rights and benefits. This application process can be lengthy and complicated. Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker.

What is the European Union’s asylum policy?

The EU’s Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is intended to ensure that the rights of refugees under international law are protected in its member states. The system sets out standards and procedures for processing and assessing asylum applications, and for the treatment of both asylum seekers and those who are granted refugee status.

Many EU states have yet to properly implement these standards. The EU requires that each asylum claim be processed in the first EU country reached by the asylum seeker, under the so-called Dublin system.

Is there a migration crisis in Europe?

There is significant public anxiety about migration in Europe, which in part grows from the rhetoric of politicians. Some politicians describe Europe as besieged by people fleeing conflict or seeking a better life.

The concerns, especially about asylum seekers, are exaggerated. During 2012, for instance, an estimated 1.7 million immigrants came legally to the EU-27 from countries outside the EU-27. By contrast, just 40,000 asylum seekers arrived from North Africa in all of 2013, and in the first quarter of 2014, the total number of asylum applications in the EU reached 110,000.

But there is a crisis in Europe’s response to irregular migrants and asylum seekers, including the EU’s ability to keep people safe and secure. The International Organization for Migration estimated that more than 3,000 migrants had died in 2014 trying to reach Europe’s shores by crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa—quadruple the estimated deaths in all of 2013. In the first quarter of 2015, the death toll is well over 1,500, compared with 96 during the first four months of last year. Irregular migrants, including those who travel across Europe’s land borders, also face the risk of violence and exploitation by human traffickers.

Many states, especially in Southern Europe, neglect or mistreat asylum seekers, sometimes restricting people in overcrowded and squalid centers while they wait for claims to be processed. The claims move slowly through overburdened systems. Meanwhile, people formally recognized as refugees often are not given the assistance they need to integrate and support themselves.

What is the European Union doing about irregular migration?

The EU has sought to stop the flow of undocumented migrants across its external borders. It has increased resources for border patrol missions coordinated by FRONTEX, the EU’s external border agency. It also has adopted laws to regulate and encourage the return of undocumented migrants. Traffickers, smugglers, and exploitative employers also face punishment if caught.

How can the European Union’s migration system improve?

The Common European Asylum System appears unable to handle sudden flows of people from conflicts, such as those in Syria and Iraq. Member states need to establish systems for allowing the rapid resettlement of people displaced by conflict. The EU should establish mutual recognition of asylum claims between countries, to make responsibility sharing easier to put into practice.

Treating migrants badly—denying equal rights and subjecting them to detention—has not deterred migrants from continuing to come to the EU. European countries, wherever possible, should ensure that migrants are treated in the same way as own citizens during their stay.

Excluding migrants from access to employment, housing, health care, and education creates irregular communities outside the protection of the law. This abets abusive employers, smuggling, and organized crime. Rules requiring landlords and employers to treat migrants differently risk racial discrimination against settled communities.

Laws that allow migrants to live a normal life during their stay in Europe can encourage self-direction and integration, reducing the need for state support and challenging anti-migrant feeling.

European countries should severely restrict or end the detention of migrants. Detention, sometimes in overcrowded and squalid conditions, is expensive to operate and harmful to the migrants affected. Individual migrants who commit crimes should answer to criminal laws applying to everyone.

These are straightforward ideas, consistent with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

What are the Open Society Foundations doing?

The Open Society Foundations believe that European migration policy should be grounded in economic and demographic realities, not driven by temporary political considerations.

We support groups across Europe that work on a broad range of issues affecting the safety and well-being of irregular and regular migrants and refugees. We also support legal action aimed at ensuring that European governments meet their obligations under international law to treat all migrants with dignity.