Academic journal article National Institute Economic Review

European Asylum Policy

Academic journal article National Institute Economic Review

European Asylum Policy

Article excerpt

Policy towards asylum seekers has been a controversial topic for more than a decade. Rising numbers of asylum applications have been met with ever-tougher policies to deter them. Following a period of policy harmonisation, the EU has reached a crucial stage in the development of a new Common European Asylum System. This paper seeks to shed light on what form this should take. It summarises the development of policy to date and it argues that these policies have been too tough, even from the point of view of EU citizens. Using an economic framework, it examines scenarios with different degrees of policy harmonisation and integration among EU countries. Finally, it argues that there is an important role for enhanced burden-sharing arrangements.

Keywords: Asylum seekers; asylum policy; policy coordination.

JEL classification: F22, H41, H77, H87, J61.


Over the past two decades there has been a rising tide of applications for asylum in Europe and other developed regions. It has sparked fierce political debate in a number of countries and it has led to a succession of policy changes, particularly in the countries of the EU. About two-thirds of asylum applications to industrialised countries over the past 20 years were lodged in the EU-15 (pre-enlargement). The trend in applications to the EU-15 can be seen in chart 1. Most of these come from three main source regions, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. As the chart shows, there is a sharp spike in the early 1990s associated with the surge in applications from Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But there is also a long-term upward trend in applications from Africa and Asia. Most asylum seekers arrived at the European destination as 'spontaneous' applicants rather than as part of an organised programme. Thus the vast bulk of asylum claims are lodged at the border or within the country, the applicant having previously gained entry, often illegally.


As table I shows, the level and trend in applications varies widely across the EU-15. The most notable case is Germany, which received over half of the EU total in the 1990s. In part, this was due to the surge in applications from Eastern Europe, which also affected other countries such as Austria, on the EU's eastern border. By contrast countries such as Finland, Greece, Ireland and Portugal received relatively few applications. But relative to their populations, the heaviest concentrations in the 1990s were in countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. The table also shows considerable variation in the trend of applications. While some countries such as Austria, Denmark, France and Sweden experienced a downward trend in applications between the late 1980s and the late 1990s, for others such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland and the UK the trend is sharply upwards.

These two characteristics--the long-term upward trend in the aggregate numbers, and the uneven distribution of asylum applications across countries--form the background to the 'policy backlash' that has occurred in the past decade and a half. It has witnessed the introduction of a wide range of policy reforms, detailed further below, that involve restricting entry, toughening the process of determining the legitimacy of asylum claims, and making living conditions less favourable for asylum applicants. The policy backlash is illustrated by the index of policy toughness displayed in chart 2. This is the average over the EU-15 (excluding Luxembourg) of an index ranging from zero to 11. (1) As the composite index illustrates, there has been a severe toughening in policy stance for the average EU country, with a particularly steep increase between 1991 and 1995. Another measure is the proportion of asylum seekers that are recognised as genuine refugees (the recognition rate). For the EU as a whole this fell from 50 per cent in 1982 to 28 per cent in 2001. …

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