Asylum systems in Europe remain disparate

Syrian refugee, Parc Maximilen. Brussels, September 2015. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

Many asylum seekers want to reach Germany or Sweden, appearing less attracted to Mediterranean countries such as France and Italy. Big differences between national asylum systems explain their preferences. The EURACTIV Network reports. 

Since the beginning of 2000, the European Union has been trying to create a more interdependent asylum system. But EU countries have kept control over their national systems, and the treatment of refugees varies greatly across Europe.

Financial help, housing support, the right to family reunification, and even the ease of access to refugee status are very different between member states, despite the common obligation to protect asylum seekers.

Refugee recognition rates appear to be very low in some EU countries and very high in others. In 2014, positive decision rates for Eritrean nationals varied from 26% in France to 100% in Sweden, while rates for Iraqi nationals ranged from 14% in Greece to 94% in France, according to the Annual Report 2014/2015 of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).

The EU registered 626,710 asylum applicants in 2014 and 368,865 during the first half of 2015, with the vast majority of applicants coming from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea.

In the second quarter of 2015 alone, 210,000 asylum seekers applied for protection in the European Union, up 15% on the first quarter of 2015 and 85% on the second quarter of 2014, according to Eurostat.

France has become less attractive

But relatively few of them are attracted by France, where the numbers of asylum seekers applying for protection remained stable in the first months of 2015.

One of the main reasons is that France has not been very generous granting asylum. In 2014, only 16% of the applicants were accepted, according to the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA).

Most of the asylum seekers in 2014 came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (5,493), Russia (4,206), Bangladesh (3,809) and Syria (3,154).

France renewed its asylum policy last year to improve the processing of applications and reduce the time needed to complete the procedure. Adopted on 15 July 2015, the law on asylum reform is aimed at giving a definitive decision to asylum seekers within nine months (including the recourse system) as opposed to the current two years.

Besides a low rate of acceptance and very long processing delays, asylum seekers are not authorised to work during the first year of the application process. They receive a temporary waiting allowance of €11.35 a day, free healthcare and accommodation in reception centres.

But in practice, the reception facilities for asylum seekers are completely saturated. With only 25,000 places in centres for asylum seekers (CADA), France can’t face the demand of 65,000 applications every year.

The French government has recently announced it is working on CADA accommodation for an additional 11,000 occupants.

Germany expecting 800,000 asylum seekers in 2015

Germany is a popular country for asylum seekers, and is becoming more and more attractive. This year, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees granted asylum to over 250,000 applicants, an increase of 122% compared to 2014.

Regardless of the high number of refugees accepted, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees is criticised for being overburdened, especially with the recent massive influx of asylum seekers to Germany. The number of open cases increased from 178,250 in January to 276,617 in August. This situation will likely get worse due to an expected arrival of 800,000 asylum seekers by the end of this year.

In the first three months after their arrival, asylum seekers are accommodated in reception centres. Interior minister Thomas de Maiziére announced plans a few weeks ago to extend the possibility for refugees to stay in reception centres for up to six months.

In the first months, asylum seekers receive free meals and €143 pocket money each month, after which it rises to €216. They are not allowed to work the first three months. And even then, the chance of getting a job is low, since in the first 15 months of their stay, Germans and EU citizens are prioritised.

NGOs and other experts also criticise the duration of the application process. This year, the average application took 5.3 months. By comparison, 80% of applications in the Netherlands are processed within a week. But the rising number of migrants means that even here, some applications take up to two months.

“The number of open applications rises from time to time. It has reached a degree which is unprecedented in Europe. The Federal Office needs more personnel to stop this trend”, said migration expert Dietrich Thränhardt from the University of Munster.

The German government has responded by doubling the number of employees that work on asylum applications. And more increases are on the horizon, according to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Interior.

Nevertheless, Thomas de Maiziére is planning huge cuts to Germany’s benefits for asylum seekers in a new fast-tracked bill, a copy of which was leaked to the news agency AFP on Thursday (17 September). Refugees who cannot be deported because they don’t have passports and refuse to give information on their country of origin will also be refused the right to work, and will lose their social benefits.

The draft bill would see refugees who have travelled to Germany via another EU country – and should therefore be under their jurisdiction, according to the Dublin rules – refused the automatic benefits allowed under Germany’s asylum seeker law. They will only be given a travel ticket and provisions, the agency said.

Asylum seekers from the former USSR in Poland

Poland has never been a popular country of destination for asylum seekers, but has seen a significant increase of asylum requests since the beginning of the crisis.

During the first six months of 2015, the country received 4,199 applications (an 11% increase on the same period the previous year) but granted refugee status to only 273, mostly from Syria (27), Egypt (15) and Iraq (14). In 2014, 8,000 requests were made and 262 accepted. At 50%, Poland has the highest share of female refugee applicants in Europe.

For many years, Russian citizens have made up more than a half of the applicants. The next most common countries of origin have typically been Ukraine and Georgia.

In June 2015, 3,800 people were living in Poland as refugees and being protected by the Polish state. Among those were 1,992 Ukrainians, 1,054 Russians and 174 Georgians.

The law states that the decision to grant asylum should be made within six months, though it allows exceptions in special circumstances.

During that time, an applicant receives free board and lodging in a refugee centre, or they can receive an allowance for accommodation and meals outside the centre. They also receive free healthcare and young asylum seekers are put into school. Parents receive an additional allowance to provide their children with lunch for school.

If the decision takes longer than six months, a person applying for asylum gets the right to work. The average time to make it is currently five months and eight days.

Sweden remains a refugee’s paradise

Sweden has been a consistently attractive country for asylum seekers over the years, thanks to a very high acceptance rate, and generous social benefits granted to applicants.

In 2014, a total of 33,671 people were granted protection in Sweden after seeking asylum, according the Swedish Migration Agency (Migrationsverket). This makes Sweden one of the top destinations for asylum seekers, especially as a proportion of the country’s population.

In 2014, the average time to deal with an asylum application during the first seven months was 131 days.

One of the main rules in Sweden’s migration legislation is that only the spouse, and children under the age of 18, have the right to reunification in the country, if one family member is granted permanent residence.

The right to work for asylum seekers in Sweden is more flexible than in other countries. An asylum seeker is allowed to work without a work permit while their application is being considered, as long as they can prove their identity.

If the asylum seeker is unable to work, or does not have any money of their own, they may receive compensation. The money should be enough for food, clothes and personal expenses.

The asylum seeker can either arrange somewhere to live, or live in housing that the Migration Agency provides. If the Migration Agency chooses the housing, the asylum seeker does not get to choose where to live, and they might have to move during the waiting period. If they arrange their own housing, they have to pay the rent.

Italy asylum system near collapse

The Italian asylum network is on the point of collapse. The country has 14 migrant shelters and five expulsion centres. Most of the 116,000 migrants that reached Italy over recent months are hosted in provisional structures.

According to the law, analysing asylum requests should take no more than 35 days, but the real average is one year.

Migrants are received in first response centres, like Lampedusa, where they are identified. Applicants for international protection are moved to specific centres for asylum seekers. Those that come to Italy as illegal migrants are stopped in centres for identification and expulsion.

In 2014, Italy spent €628 million dealing with the wave of migration, and the Italian government expects to spend some €800 million during this year. A structural upgrade for the asylum network will not be considered. European ‘hot spots’ have been set up in centres which already exist.


According to the UNHCR spokesperson Maria Jesús Vega, Spain has a better asylum system than many other EU member states.

But many things could be improved in the asylum process, and also in the reception and integration of the refugees in Spain. In Madrid, for example, it takes up to 4 months to formalise an asylum request.

Spanish law states that it should be between three and six months to complete an asylum request, but in practice it takes more than a year, and in some cases up to two years.

Like the rest of Europe, Spain has faced an explosion of asylum requests in recent years. In 2012 there were 2,500, in 2013, 4,500, in 2014, 6,000, and in the first six months of 2015 Spain received 6,000.

Despite this rapidly changing situation, there has been no increase in the budget allocated to meet the challenge.

As a result, Spain has very few accommodation facilities for refugees. Capacity is around 1,000, and they can stay only six months. This period can be renewed under special circumstances, and for particularly vulnerable people. 

The 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country".

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