EU raises the alarm on soaring asylum requests from 'safe' countriesComments
The European Union is becoming increasingly worried about the surging number of requests lodged by asylum seekers who are, in principle, ineligible for international protection, such as nationals from India, Bangladesh, Morocco, Egypt and Peru.
The European Commission estimates the number of asylum applications reached 924,000 by the end of 2022 – the highest level since 2016 – while irregular border crossings tripled year-on-year to 330,000.
Notably, the asylum requests included citizens from countries considered official candidates to join the bloc, like Turkey, Albania, North Macedonia and Moldova.
The growing concern among member states came to the fore during a two-day informal meeting of interior ministers that took place in Stockholm this week.
"We have three times more asylum applications than irregular arrivals and these are overloading the reception capacities," Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for home affairs, said on Thursday.
"Many of these are not in need of international protection."
Johansson said over 60% of these requests are bound to end with a "negative" decision, that is a rejection of asylum and an order to leave EU territory.
About 850,000 demands, including first-time requests and appeals, are still pending a final decision.
'Mounting pressure on national systems'
The bloc is struggling to send ineligible applicants back to their transit or home countries, with a return rate of 21% of all irregular migrants registered in 2022.
Interior ministers want to increase this rate as soon as possible and are considering ways to make full use of Article 25a of the EU's Visa Code, which can slap restrictive measures on non-EU countries that refuse to cooperate on readmissions.
"Effective returns is one of the most effective incentives to prevent the arrival of those who are not in need of international protection," Johansson said.
November alone saw 105,970 asylum requests filed across the EU, Norway and Switzerland, according to figures provided by the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA).
Syrians made up the largest group, with 17,739 requests, followed by Afghans (14,877), Turks (8,342), Colombians (4,884) and Venezuelans (4,350).
Requests by citizens from Turkey, Bangladesh, Morocco, Georgia, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Peru marked "all-time highs" in November, the agency said.
The over four million Ukrainian refugees who fled Russia's war underwent a separate, fast-tracked procedure, known as Temporary Protection Directive, and do not add to the total.
November also saw over 19,900 asylum applications filed by nationals coming from countries that have a visa-free agreement with the EU, such as Colombians, Argentinians, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Albanians, Moldovans, North Macedonians and Bosnians.
"The build-up and recent clustering of unusually high levels signals mounting pressure on national systems," the EUAA said in its November report.
Safe countries of origin
Under international law, asylum should be granted to people fleeing persecution or serious harm in their country of origin, such as sexual violence, torture, discrimination and inhumane treatment.
But EU member states are entitled to reject an asylum application if they determine the person comes from a so-called "safe country of origin" where democratic principles, the rule of law and human rights are sufficiently guaranteed to prevent disproportionate punishments.
Each country compiles its own list of "safe" countries according to general parameters laid out by European regulations, which means that, for example, Germany might consider unsafe a country that Italy considers safe.
The concept of a "safe country of origin" is controversial and has been contested by civil society organisations, who argue unfair persecution can still take place within a democratic, peaceful country.
"It often so happens that in certain countries of origin where nationals 'generally' enjoy state protection, certain minorities – be they ethnic, religious, sexual or other – find themselves exposed to ill-treatment," said the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) in a 2015 report.
The surge in asylum applications and border crossings will be the central topic of an extraordinary EU summit scheduled for 9 and 10 February, an occasion that will bring migration policy back to the very top of the bloc's agenda after months focused on the Ukraine war and the energy crisis.
Ahead of the February meeting, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen penned a letter for heads of government and state proposing a series of "operational measures," including expedited returns procedures and a common list of safe countries at the EU level.