Asylum in the EU - easy or not?

28 May 2015


"Terms for European asylum are very very wide"

Nigel Farage, 20 May 2015

From symposiums in Oxford to the pages of the Sun, it's not hard to find opinions on European refugee policy and its fatal lack or alarming excess of generosity.

The European Union has rules on asylum and other forms of humanitarian protection—in essence, allowing people to stay in a given country if deporting them would put them at serious risk.

These set minimum standards on things like who qualifies as a refugeehow this should be worked out, and how asylum seekers should be treated.

Asylum's not just an EU concept

The UK and other European countries had basic rules to follow on this already. The international Geneva Convention on refugees, which almost 150 countries have signed, has addressed these issues for decades—long before the EU began to build the Common European Asylum System. That system is supposed to be in line with what the Geneva Convention says.

So even if there were no EU, the UK would be required by international law to take in refugees according to the Geneva Convention, which forbids sending them back to a place where their "life of freedom would be threatened".

That said, its definitions on what this and other important concepts mean have to be put into practice by individual countries in their own legal and administrative systems, and are obviously open to interpretation. The UN can't enforce a common understanding. The EU's rules are meant to do so.

We now opt out of the Common European Asylum System

The UK was included in the early stages of this system, and a government review has described it as "a key part of the UK's policy on asylum seekers".

But we've opted out of many of the more recent changes, and can continue to do so in future. So while European rules have changed our asylum law to some extent, it's not accurate to think of our system as an EU product.

Nor does the EU think that the rules that we are signed up to have created a uniform system.

No easy contrast with non-EU countries

We could try to compare the proportion of successful asylum applications in EU countries compared to the rest of the world. If the 'recognition rate' in EU countries were similar, and higher than others, that might help answer Mr. Farage's claim.

But experts have reservations about this approach. When Australian academics writing for The Conversation addressed this question a couple of years ago, they warned that:

"Difference in acceptance rates may have nothing to do with the systems of review of applications. Refugee-receiving countries around the world are dealing with populations from different regions. The levels of humanitarian crisis differ from country to country […] furthermore, the rates of success of asylum seekers from the same country can vary markedly from year to year due to assessments of the country's geo-political circumstances".

Besides, governments may not particularly want there to be any easy way of comparing where asylum is more likely to be granted.

Asylum acceptance rates vary across the EU

We do know that there is variation—even across EU countries, even dealing with asylum seekers from the same countries.

The proportion of applications for asylum or other humanitarian protection that were successful, before any appeal, ranged from 4% to 88% across different EU countries in 2013. After appeal, it still fluctuated between one fifth and one half, according to the EU's Asylum Support Office.

The EU offers extra protection for non-refugees as well

If we compare just asylum grants, before any appeal, the EU as a whole granted asylum in 18% of completed applications in 2013. But that more than doubles, to about 40%, when you take into account all forms of humanitarian protection (not just asylum).

EU law requires that we take in people who don't qualify as refugees, but are at risk of serious harm. Not all countries have a formal system for this (although most western countries do).

That might be one reason Mr. Farage describes Europe as "very very wide" in its embrace of foreign nationals claiming to be at risk.

Extra humanitarian protection in the EU isn't just the result of EU law

Member states may also have their own rules that offer extra degrees of protection, beyond what either the UN Convention or the EU require. Before appeal, these accounted for around 18,000 successful applications in 2013, whereas EU-mandated 'subsidiary protection' led to 46,000—so the difference between the 18% and 40% we mentioned above isn't entirely down to EU law.

It's also hard to say how many of these 56,000 would have been successful anyway, as the EU rules standardise what was already in place in many EU countries before they came in.

And the direct impact of 'subsidiary protection' on the UK is currently tiny. The government granted it to 108 people last year (possibly slightly more following appeal), compared with almost 9,000 who were given formal asylum on the first decision.

You can read our factcheck on the knock-on impact of refugees settling in other EU countries here.

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