The Covid-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on migration flows in the EU. Movement restrictions put in place in light of the coronavirus pandemic have led to a reduction in migration, both legal and illegal, as countries have closed borders, restricted routes for legal migration and scaled back programmes to take in refugees.
However, the flaws in the EU’s asylum system exposed by the arrival of more than one million asylum seekers and migrants in 2015 remain. Parliament has been working on proposals to create a fairer, more effective European asylum policy.
Refugee and asylum seeker: two terms to be distinguished
Asylum seekers are people who make a formal request for asylum in another country because they fear their life is at risk in their home country.
Refugees are people with a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, politics or membership of a particular social group who have been accepted and recognised as such in their host country. In the EU, the qualification directive sets guidelines for assigning international protection to those who need it.
Currently people from outside the EU must apply for protection in the first EU country they enter. Filing a claim means that they become asylum applicants (or asylum seekers). They receive refugee status or a different form of international protection only once a positive decision has been made by national authorities.
Asylum decisions in the EU
In the first 10 months of 2020, there were 390,000 asylum applications in the EU, 33% less than the same period of 2019. In 2018, there were 634,700 applications, significantly lower than the more than one million applications registered in 2015 and 2016.
Particularly large declines were seen in Germany, France and Italy in the first seven months of 2020. There were fewer first-time applications from Syria (135,000 fewer than the average for 2018 and 2019, down 52%), Iraq (down 55%) and Nigeria (down 58%).
However, numbers were up in Spain and Romania, partly due to an increase in applications from South American countries, including Colombia (up 102% on the average of the previous two years) and Peru (76% higher).
A six-year low in irregular border crossings
The European Border and Coast Guard Agency collects data on illegal crossings of the EU’s external borders registered by national authorities.
In 2015 and 2016, more than 2.3 million illegal crossings were detected. The total number of illegal crossings in January-November 2020 dropped to 114,300, the lowest level in the last six years and a decrease of 10% compared to the same period in 2019. Despite a 55% drop, Afghanistan remains one of the main countries of origin of people detected making an irregular border crossing, along with Syria, Tunisia and Algeria.
The Mediterranean crossing remained deadly, with 1,754 people reported dead or missing in 2020 compared to 2,095 people in 2019. Irregular arrivals via the Central Mediterranean Route (to Italy and Malta) increased by 154% in January-November 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
There were more than 34,100 such arrivals in 2020, compared to nearly 11,500 in 2019, with the majority of people arriving in Lampedusa. Arrivals in Spain, and in particular the Canary Islands, increased by 46% (35,800) in 2020 compared to 2019.
Many new arrivals originate from countries suffering from an economic downturn rather than conflict. A decline in global remittances is also likely to contribute to this trend. Until the pandemic is contained and economic recovery is underway, poor employment and healthcare prospects will remain an incentive for people to come to the EU.
What Europeans are thinking
Migration has been an EU priority for years. Several measures have been taken to manage migration flows as well as to improve the asylum system.
Even though the Eurobarometer survey from June 2019 shows that migration was the fifth biggest issue that influenced Europeans’ voting decisions for that year’s EU elections, a Parlemeter 2020 survey registered a drop in importance. It is considered as the main area of disagreement between the EU and national governments by nearly half (47%) of respondents.
The EU significantly increased its funding for migration, asylum and integration policies in the wake of the increased inflow of asylum seekers in 2015. € 22.7 billion goes to migration and border management in the EU’s budget for 2021-2027, compared with €10 billion for migration and asylum in 2014-2020.