Understanding Migration and Asylum in the European Union

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.

Are asylum seekers and migrants still attempting to reach Europe?

The majority of arrivals to the European Union in 2016 have come via the Mediterranean. Since the beginning of the year, more than 4,600 people have died or gone missing while attempting to reach Italy from the North African coast. This is the highest recorded number of deaths in the Mediterranean to date.

The highest number of migrants arrive in Greece and Italy, often after a perilous journey across the sea. In Greece, around 62,000 people are waiting to have their asylum applications processed, with about 11,400 of them held in facilities on the Greek islands. Each month, less than 1,000 asylum decisions are given, with more than that number of asylum seekers arriving. In Italy, over 11,000 people per month applied for asylum in 2016, and on average between 6,000 and 8,000 are processed every month. Faced with this unprecedented situation, both countries have struggled to provide decent reception facilities with even basic services.

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.

What are the Open Society Foundations doing?

We believe that the EU should commit to building a single asylum and migration system that establishes safe, legal means of migration. This requires the political will to recognize that existing approaches to migration have created the appearance of failure and crisis. Europe needs sustainable, affordable migration systems that enjoy the support of the public.

The ultimate goal is to create policies and practices that protect refugees and enable legal movement for work, family, and study without violating human rights. Our teams work to conceive and support the development of effective and sustainable policy proposals to form a cohesive and progressive European asylum system.

We work in all European countries affected by large migration movements to support civil society organizations looking to respond in humane and responsible ways.

In Greece, we work with organizations like the Greek Council for Refugees, which monitors practices and abuses at border areas, in reception facilities, and in detention centers; the Hellenic League of Human Rights, which provides asylum seekers with reliable information; and the Greek Forum of Refugees, a refugee- and migrant-led organization that seeks to influence Greece’s migration policy. 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 refugees and migrants.

In Italy, Open Society supports 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 the housing of refugees and asylum seekers in private accommodation as an alternative reception model; LasciateCIEntrare advocates for the closure of migrant detention centers; and the Italian Civil Liberties Coalition and its platform Open Migration provides data, fact checking, and stories to improve the migration debate.

In Spain, Open Society supports grassroots rights groups such as Caminando Fronteras, which monitors practices at the Spanish borders and in detention centers, and Coordinadora de Barrios, which uses strategic litigation to seek justice for victims of police violence and human rights abuses.

In Western Europe, Open Society’s work extends from the United Kingdom to Finland. The British Refugee Council offers practical advice and support to refugees, Migrant Voice amplifies migrant perspectives through its newspaper, the Finnish Refugee Council builds the capacity of grassroots groups to advocate for themselves, Women 2 Women in Sweden provides migrant-led advocacy, and Mediendienst-Integration in Germany serves as a reliable source of information and data for media reporting on migration.

In Central and Eastern Europe, Open Society works to empower new voices and local organizations to shape the migration debate. In Hungary, Open Society provides core support to investigative journalism outlet Atlatszo.hu to investigate stories about people smuggling and government mismanagement. The Menedék Hungarian Association for Migrants and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee provide legal assistance and other support to migrants and asylum seekers.

In the Western Balkans, Open Society’s national foundations in Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia support organizations that provide humanitarian and legal aid for migrants in transit. In Turkey, the national foundation provides support to Syrian refugees.