Understanding Migration and Asylum in the European Union

The Open Society Foundations have worked on global migration issues for many years. This has included supporting efforts to improve the treatment of labor migrants in Central Asia, Latin America, South Asia, and the Gulf; advocating a better, common asylum policy in Europe; challenging conditions of detention for migrants in many countries; and defending migrant communities against a wide array of xenophobic attacks in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States. 

We believe that migration is one of the great challenges of the globalized world. Refugees will always move across borders to seek safety for themselves and their families in the face of war, persecution and conflict. People who face poverty in their home country will always move in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

Our focus is on humane policy and institutional responses to migration rather than on emergency humanitarian relief.

What are the Open Society Foundations doing about migration in the European Union?

In the European Union, the Open Society Foundations seek to support those who work to protect the legal rights of migrants and refugees, and to ease the challenges of integration. We support the development of realistic policy solutions to the human challenges involved.

We do not “fund migration” in Europe or anywhere else. In line with our focus on policy and institutional responses, we do not fund the important humanitarian relief response of NGOs, such as the operation of search and rescue vessels in the Mediterranean. 

In Italy, we support organizations that work to reform Italy’s asylum system. Medici per i Diritti Umani advocates for better conditions in Italy’s asylum reception centers; Refugees Welcome Italy promotes housing refugees and asylum seekers in private accommodation as an alternative to state facilities; ASGI and A Buon Diritto work to ensure that international, European, and national laws are honored during asylum procedures, that reception conditions are dignified, and that no one is deprived of their liberty without judicial oversight and procedural safeguards. The Italian Civil Liberties Coalition and its platform Open Migration provides data, fact checking, and stories to inform the migration debate.

In Greece, we work with organizations like the Greek Council for Refugees, which monitors rights violations at border areas, in reception facilities, and in detention centers; the Hellenic League of Human Rights, which provides asylum seekers with reliable information about their rights and obligations; and the Greek Forum of Refugees, a refugee- and migrant-led organization that seeks to support migrants’ integration in the country. Solidarity Now, set up in 2013 by the Open Society Foundations—and today a grantee—provides housing, basic medical care, and other relief services to newcomers and Greeks.

In Spain, we support NGOs which provide legal aid to refugees and seek to improve the national asylum system, such as the as Spanish Commission for Refugees and Coordinadora de Barrios.

In Western Europe, Open Society’s work extends from the United Kingdom to Finland. The Migrants’ Rights Network reports and challenges the rise in racism and xenophobia in Britain, Migrant Voice amplifies migrants’ perspectives through its newspaper, the Raul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden builds the capacity of grassroots groups to advocate for themselves, and Mediendienst-Integration in Germany serves as a reliable source of information and data for media reporting on migration.

In Britain, we have worked with the UK government on the development of a community sponsorship scheme, the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, based on a successful Canadian model for supporting the integration of newly arrived refugee families. 

In Central and Eastern Europe, we support local organizations which work to ensure newcomers are treated with dignity and assist with their integration into the society. Menedék organizes training courses for professionals including social workers, teachers, and police officers working in immigration detention centers in Hungary, and the Association for Migration and Integration in Czechia is working on ensuring that the rights of EU nationals working in the country are protected.

The Open Society Foundations have also funded support for refugee and host communities in Turkey and Jordan, where the majority of Syrian refugees are located. 

Is there a difference between a migrant and a refugee?

A migrant is a person who leaves home to seek a new life in another region or country. This includes all those who move across borders, including those doing so with government permission, i.e., with a visa or a work permit, as well as those doing so without it, i.e., irregular or undocumented migrants. The member states of the European Union agree that EU citizens and their families have freedom of movement within the EU and the European Economic Area—these citizens are privileged migrants because they don’t require individual permission from officials as other migrants do.

A refugee is someone fleeing war, persecution, or natural disaster. Refugee status is defined in international law, which requires states to protect refugees and not send anyone to a place where they risk being persecuted or seriously harmed. States hold primary responsibility for the protection of refugees. The UN counted 21.3 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2015.

“Asylum” refers to the legal permission to stay somewhere as a refugee, which brings rights and benefits. 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 Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is a set of EU laws, completed in 2005. They are intended to ensure that all EU member states protect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. The CEAS sets out minimum standards and procedures for processing and deciding asylum applications, and for the treatment of both asylum seekers and those who are recognized as refugees. Implementation of CEAS varies throughout the European Union. A number of EU states still do not operate fair, effective systems of asylum decision-making and support, leading to a patchwork of 28 asylum systems producing uneven results.

Asylum seekers have no legal duty to claim asylum in the first EU state they reach, and many move on, seeking to join relatives or friends for support, or to reach a country with a functioning asylum system. However, the “Dublin” regulation stipulates that EU member states can choose to return asylum seekers to their country of first entry to process their asylum claim, so long as that country has an effective asylum system.

EU countries in the north, the desired destination of many refugees, have sought to use this Dublin system to their advantage, at the expense of the south, where most refugees first arrive. Yet these efforts have been obstructed by failures of asylum systems in the south. Domestic and European courts have ruled against asylum seekers being returned to Greece, notably in a landmark case in 2011 that found Belgium in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights for exposing an Afghan national to detention, harsh living conditions, and risks arising from shortcomings in Greece’s asylum system after a return.

To address the uneven application of CEAS and the problems of the Dublin system, a reform of the CEAS was proposed in 2016. Among the proposed reforms is one that risks endangering the right to asylum in the EU, with an obligation to verify first if asylum seekers could find protection outside the EU. Some EU countries have already voiced opposition to some of the reforms, notably the obligation to take refugees from other EU countries.

How has the European Union responded to refugee movements?

In 2015, high numbers of migrants, many of them Syrians fleeing conflict, continued to move. Some European states, led by Germany, recognized that their strategy of seeking to block refugees moving across borders was unrealistic and harmful. Countries worked together to allow migrants to move onwards to the places they wished to reach. This allowed reception countries to focus their resources on supporting asylum seekers and considering claims.

By early 2016, support for this policy began to wane, with increased hostility towards migrants entering the political discourse. Certain countries along the migrant route began to close their borders. The situation further deteriorated when the EU’s decision to transfer 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other European member states was met with widespread resistance. In the end, a small percentage of the needed transfers actually took place.

In response to the failure to adequately process asylum claims, the EU set up “hotspots” in Greece and Italy. Hotspots identify, register, and fingerprint incoming migrants, and redirect them either towards asylum or return procedures. In practice, many hotspots are turning into overcrowded and understaffed detention and expulsion centers, with little external oversight.

In March 2016, the EU announced a deal in which Turkey would try to stop people from moving onward into Europe; in return, Turkey was promised financial assistance, visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens, and faster negotiations for EU accession. But the EU-Turkey deal failed to close the border, and thousands of migrants continued to travel irregularly using smugglers. Since the deal, only 750 asylum seekers have been sent back from Greece to Turkey, because Greek officials and courts consider Turkey to be an unsafe country.

This deal is one example of a controversial practice, in which the EU links development aid or economic incentives to commitments by states to stem and manage the movements of people from their territory. Similar deals are being approved with a number of third countries including Libya, Egypt, Sudan, and Nigeria. In June 2016, the European Commission proposed a new “Partnership Framework” with third countries in the Middle East and Africa, leading to criticism by a broad range of actors for deal making with countries with poor human rights records, and for conflicting with international protection frameworks, including the right to leave one’s own country.

The EU also continues to support refugees in host countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan—where the majority of Syrian refugees are hosted—including through funding for UN agencies working in the field such as the UNHCR or the WFP.