The Russian roulette of the EU asylum system

The likelihood of receiving asylum in the EU is a game of risk that migrants have to play.

More than 124,000 asylum seekers have reached Europe since the beginning of 2014 [AFP/Getty Images]

After a staggering 1,880 migrants have died trying to reach Europe in 2014, the European Commission has finally announced that it will be assuming the responsibility of patrolling the Mediterranean Sea. As of August 2014, it is estimated that 124,380 would-be asylum seekers landed on European soil, the largest amount in recent memory.

At the current rate, 2014 is poised to break the record set in 2011, when 140,000 migrants arrived following the Arab Spring. Enduring conflicts in Syria and Iraq and general instability in Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia has driven more people from their homes in search of refuge in Europe. However, paying a high sum to endure a grueling and perilous passage may in fact be the most straightforward leg of the journey.

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Faced with this surging number of refugees, the cracks in asylum system of the European Union are showing beneath its polished veneer. Since 2003, European countries – the 28 EU Member States and Schengen zone countries including Switzerland, Norway and Iceland – have implemented a harmonised asylum policy that was called the Dublin Regulation. Under this legislation, asylum seekers must apply for asylum in the first country that collects their fingerprints and if found in another state, they face expulsion back to their point of entry.

When this regime was created, one of the aims was to prevent so-called asylum shopping, when one person applies in more than one country or only applies to countries with stronger welfare benefits for refugees. Since 2013, fingerprints of all applicants have been collected and stored in a common database called EURODAC. This has led migrants to burn their fingertips once they have been fingerprinted in Italy or Greece in order to apply in countries like Sweden or the UK.

Scaling the buffer zone

Another perhaps intentional consequence of this measure is the creation of a buffer zone between migrants and wealthier northern European countries with stronger economies and more resources to adequately provide for asylum seekers. In fact, all of the ten best performing economies in EU, as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, lay beyond this frontier.

Germany, the largest economy and among the strongest in the European Union, is “protected” on all four sides by other states that would be responsible for migrants under the Dublin Regulation. However, migrants and their supporters are pushing back against the policy as part of the Lampedusa in Hamburg movement. In March 2013, 300 African migrants arrived in the northern port city of Hamburg in the hopes of attaining German work permits due to a lack of opportunities in Italy, their first point of arrival after their harrowing journey from Libya. The government has refused their requests and protests continue throughout Germany.

From transit country to final destination

This system has placed an unfair burden on the southern and eastern European nations, such as Greece, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria and even Turkey. Prior to the Dublin Regulation, many of these states were known as transit countries through which migrants passed on their way to the North. Now, they are struggling to cope with record numbers of arrivals in the midst of an economic crisis.

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In Greece, immigration authorities have so far apprehended 14,800 migrants in 2014, an increase of 143 percent over the previous year, and costing the government EUR63m ($81m) in 2013 as the national unemployment rate remains the highest in Europe. Greece has received heavy criticism of its treatment of migrants. Amnesty International has accused border agents of “pushing back” boats of migrants into Turkish waters while a Medecins Sans Frontieres report revealed the squalid conditions of Greek detention centres. If migrants do survive what has been termed the “Greek hell“, they only have a 4 percent chance of being granted asylum.

However, Italy is supporting the lion’s share of asylum seekers. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 108,172 people have landed on Italian shores as of August 24, the highest ever recorded. Due to its geographic proximity to Africa, Italy has become the entry point for many migrants into Europe. The government is overwhelmed: Camps are overcrowded and the financial strain on the cash-strapped nation is taking its toll.

Since a few hundred migrants died off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013, the Italian government launched Mare Nostrum, a navy operation to rescue migrants from unseaworthy vessels in the Mediterranean. The programme has cost EUR9.5m ($12m) per month; Italy had repeatedly asked fellow European Union Member States to share the burden of asylum seekers, a request that has finally been heeded through the Frontex Plus programme, an EU-wide initiative that will replace Mare Nostrum. While Italy accepts 61 percent of asylum applicants, its weak economy has hampered its ability to provide adequate opportunities for new arrivals.

Many migrants have also poured into Bulgaria. The European Union’s poorest country shares a border with Turkey, one of the main transit countries on the road to Europe. The government may extend an already existing fence to prevent more asylum seekers from entering. While Bulgaria manages to provide for migrants within its modest means and boasts one of the highest acceptance rates at 87 percent, many migrants struggle to establish themselves due to a lack of opportunity and resources.

End of the European dream?

For many, arriving to Europe is not a guarantee of the start of a new life; roughly two-thirds of applications for protection status are refused. Ironically, many of the wealthier countries that accept the highest number of applicants are beyond the buffer zone. For example, five countries (Sweden, Germany, France, Italy and the UK) welcome 70 percent of asylum seekers, while Sweden, Switzerland and Austria grant the most protection status per population.

The process is further complicated by the huge disparity between the acceptance rates of countries, which indicates the need for a comprehensive European assessment tool that fairly examines applications for asylum. It would help streamline a system that is currently plagued by a schizophrenic logic; and allow Europe to accept more asylum seekers, particularly from conflict zones like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of leaving migrants to play Russian roulette, where their chance of being granted protection depends on whose shores they land upon.

Kait Bolongaro is a journalist, photographer and a Master’s student of Journalism and Political Science. Her research interests include politics, environmental issues, migration and education.

Follow her on Twitter: @kbolongaro