Understanding Migration and Asylum in the European Union

Is there a difference between a migrant and a refugee?

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 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.)

The word “refugee” describes someone fleeing war, persecution, or natural disasters. Under international law, no one can be sent to a place where they face a real risk of being persecuted or seriously harmed by others. Those claiming this status can ask for asylum—legal permission to stay as a refugee—which brings with it rights and benefits. This application process can be lengthy and complicated. Not every asylum seeker will be recognized as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker.

What is the European Union’s asylum policy?

The EU has spent years building the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), which is intended to ensure that the rights of refugees under international law are protected in its member states. The system sets out minimum standards and procedures for processing and assessing asylum applications, and for the treatment of both asylum seekers and those who are granted refugee status. However, many EU states have yet to properly implement these standards. What exists instead is a patchwork of 28 asylum systems producing uneven results.

Where an asylum seeker travels through several EU countries, the CEAS allows one EU country to send that person to the first EU country reached by the asylum seeker, so long as that country upholds the rights of asylum seekers. This so-called “Dublin system” privileges EU countries in the north, the desired destination of many refugees, at the expense of the south, where most refugees first arrived.

But only a very small proportion of asylum seekers are transferred this way, and failures of asylum systems in Greece, Italy, and Hungary have led courts to block transfers. Unlike settled residents and tourists, asylum seekers do not have the right to move freely within the EU’s Schengen area.

Member states have reinstituted border controls at times, endangering the Schengen system of free movement, as well as erected fences along borders, notably in Hungary and Bulgaria. Several countries in Central Europe have been openly dismissive of resettling refugees, and far-right anti-immigrant parties have risen in popularity across Europe.

How has the European Union responded to refugee movements?

Under the revised European Agenda on Migration, the EU pledged to take immediate action to prevent further losses of life and to improve conditions for those seeking protection in Europe.

The EU plans to relocate migrants who reach the EU from countries at the EU’s external frontiers—like Italy, Greece, and Hungary—to countries which have few arrivals. The plan is to relocate 160,000 people across the EU over the next two years. This decision was reached following months of negotiations to overcome the reluctance of governments. Individual states, like the United Kingdom, have plans to resettle refugees directly from countries neighboring Syria.

Support teams of experts from EU agencies such as the European Asylum Support Office will be deployed at major European arrival points, like the Greek islands, to assist in the registration of arriving refugees.

The EU has pledged one billion euros to world food programs to help reduce the flow of arriving refugees. These funds will be directed to host countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan to manage their significant refugee communities. In the fall of 2015, the European Commission launched inquiries against many of its member states that failed to adhere to common rules for granting protection and providing decent conditions to asylum seekers, such as housing, food, and health care.

In the current surge of arrivals, those reaching Europe are only a fraction of the world’s refugees. According to UNHCR figures, developing countries host over 86 percent of the world’s refugees.

What are the Open Society Foundations doing?

Open Society’s work on refugees and migrants involves different programs and builds on our 25-year presence in Europe.

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 and popular understanding and support for these.

The ultimate goal is to create migration 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 Southern Europe, we support the strategic use of law to push European governments to end policies of using administrative detention to punish and intimidate migrants. We work in Greece to end indefinite detention and in Italy to ensure access to effective judicial protection.

In Italy, we work to build a broader base of support to call for a reform of Italy’s asylum system. We support nonprofit organizations like Medici per i Diritti Umani, which advocates for better conditions at Italy’s asylum reception centers. We work with activist groups such as the Comitato Tre Ottobre–Accoglienza set up by refugees and journalists at the aftermath of the 2013 tragedy in Lampedusa to advocate for the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. We support journalistic projects such as the production of six films by Italian news outlet Internazionale documenting the perilous journeys of migrants at Europe’s borders.

In Spain, we support rights groups that monitor practices at the Spanish borders, such as in Ceuta and Melilla, documenting police violence and other human rights abuses.

In Greece, we work with civil society organizations like the Greek Council for Refugees that monitor practices and abuses at border areas, reception facilities, and detention centers. We also support refugee- and migrant-led organizations such as the Greek Forum of Refugees to empower their voices in the ongoing debates about migration and asylum. We also support academics in their efforts to document the reality on the islands of the Aegean. Jointly with the Greek Council for Refugees, we use the European Court of Human Rights to challenge state failures that allow systemic labor exploitation of migrants.

Solidarity Now—an initiative of the Open Society Foundations in Greece—supports NGOs like PRAKSIS and METAction, which offer basic medical care and interpreter services respectively to respond to the influx of refugees on the Greek islands. At the request of the Greek state agency First Reception Service, Solidarity Now supports two mobile units on the islands of Kos and Leros. Both units dealt with approximately 42,000 incoming migrants and refugees during the first eight months of 2015.

In Western Europe, our work extends from the United Kingdom to Finland. We support the British Refugee Council, which offers practical advice and support to refugees; Migrant Voice, which amplifies migrant points of view; the Finnish Refugee Council, which is building the capacity of grass roots groups to advocate for themselves; and refugee-led organizations like Woman 2 Women in Sweden.  

In Central and Eastern Europe, we work to empower new voices and local organizations to shape the migration debate. For example, we support the Budapest-based investigative journalism outlet Atlatszo.hu, which runs stories about people smugglers in Hungary and the mismanagement of the situation by the authorities.

In Hungary, we continue to support longstanding grantees such as the Menedék Hungarian Association for Migrants and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which provide, among other services, legal assistance to migrants and asylum seekers.

In the Western Balkans, we work with our national foundations in Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia supporting organizations that provide humanitarian and legal aid for migrants in transit, as well as national advocacy to shape public opinion.

Building on more than 10 years’ work to improve the integration of minorities in Western Europe, plans are afoot to engage further with receiving societies like Germany on how to create positive inclusion for newly arrived refugees.