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Europe's Summer 2018 Migration Crisis

July 9, 2018

The EU 28 member states granted asylum to 538,000 foreigners in 2017. Two thirds were Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, and 60 percent of those recognized as refugees were in Germany.

A June 2018 summit of EU leaders tried to revise the Dublin Agreement, which makes the first EU country reached by an asylum seeker responsible for whether the person needs refuge. EU leaders agreed to establish detention centers in some EU and North African countries to screen asylum seekers quickly, return those who do not qualify as refugees, and resettle those recognized as refugees throughout the EU to countries that will accept them. Eastern European countries have refused to accept relocated migrants.

EU countries are struggling with the three major steps in asylum systems. The first is registration and reception, which involves fingerprinting asylum seekers and providing them with housing and food while they prepare applications for asylum. Issues in step one range from checking those who register against terrorism and previous applicant databases to finding housing for applicants.

Step two is making a decision on the application and allowing rejected asylum seekers to appeal. This process can take several years, during which governments provide asylum seekers with housing and food. Some governments allow asylum applicants to live with local relatives and some allow them to work, but others do not to avoid magnet effects that draw more asylum applicants. Asylum adjudicators seek to balance between Type 1 error, rejecting true refugees, and Type 2 error, accepting non-refugees.

Step three is integrating those who are recognized as refugees and removing non-refugees. If several years are required to make final decisions, foreigners may have integrated into host countries and reluctant to leave. Most EU governments have been unable to remove large numbers of rejected asylum seekers.

Difficulties integrating refugees and removing non-refugees have fueled the rise of populist and anti-migrant parties. EU leaders hope that detention camps for asylum seekers rescued in the Mediterranean Sea will prevent migrants from moving to other EU countries after being registered.

The arrival of 46,000 asylum seekers in Germany who were registered in other EU countries prompted CSU Interior Minister Horst Seehofer in June 2018 to order Bavarian police check arrivals on the German-Austrian border and block the entry of asylum seekers registered in other EU countries. The result was a government crisis, as PM Angela Merkel would lose her governing majority if Seehofer's CSU withdrew from the CSD-CSU-SPD coalition.

Merkel and other EU leaders want to preserve open borders between the 26 Schengen member states and their 420 million residents, which they say is possible only if external borders are strengthened. In order to avoid new border checks, Merkel promised to negotiate bilateral agreements with other EU countries so that they accept the return of registered asylum seekers who moved to Germany.

Merkel persuaded the EU in June 2018 to promise €500 million to North African countries to enlist their help to reduce illegal migration, including by establishing detention camps for asylum seekers. Preventing asylum seekers from reaching EU countries by keeping them in North Africa echoes the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement: Turkey received €3 billion to prevent migrants leaving by boat for nearby Greek islands and to improve conditions for Syrian refugees in Turkey. The EU plans a second €3 billion payment to Turkey.

The figure below shows that the number of asylum seekers peaked in Fall 2015, after Merkel announced that Germany would not enforce the Dublin regulation that Syrians apply for asylum in the first safe country they reach, which was Greece. The March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement allowed migrants arriving in Greece to be returned to Turkey and placed at the back of the line for resettlement, prompting smugglers to move more migrants from Libya to Italy. These boat arrivals slowed in 2017 after the EU funded the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return migrants leaving in small boats to Libya, and Italy placed restrictions on the activities of rescue ships that wait 12 miles off Libya's coast to help migrants.

Monthly Migrant Arrivals

Asylum applications in Germany and Sweden peaked in 2015-16, and have since fallen. However, asylum applications are rising in Greece and Italy as it becomes more difficult to arrive in one EU country and apply for asylum in another.

Annual Asylum Applications by Country