In Depth

Europe’s hostile environment deters asylum seekers

Sharp fall in number of people seeking asylum in the EU - but political battles continue

The number of people seeking asylum in the EU dropped by nearly half last year, as refugees were turned off and turned away by an increasingly hostile environment stoked by the rise of far-right anti-immigrant populist parties across the continent.

In decline

The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) counted 728,470 asylum applications in 2017, a 44% reduction on the 1.3 million made the the previous year.

The fall in asylum applications “reflects a sharp drop in people making the hazardous journey over the eastern Mediterranean to Greece, and the central Mediterranean to Italy” says The Guardian. Asylum-seekers coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan accounted for nearly a third of all claims.

The pressure on the EU’s external borders from migrants decreased for the second year in a row, as did the number of migrants granted refugee status.

According to provisional data from EASO, in the first four months of 2018 about 197,000 people sought protection in the EU, fewer than during the same period in each of the last three years, but “still higher that the pre-crisis levels in 2014”, says Politico.

Political battles

Growing tension within and between national governments over immigration policy has been laid bare over the past week with emergency talks in the German coalition over border controls and a bitter stand-off between EU nations over a migrant rescue ship that eventually docked in Spain after being banned from Italy and Malta.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has faced widespread criticism for her decision to let in over one million migrants at the height of the crisis in 2015.

Weakened domestically, she is now caught in deadlock with her own interior minister, Horst Seehofer, over plans to turn away migrants already registered in other EU states. This will, she argues, unfairly burden southern European countries such as Italy and Greece, and further play into the hands of anti-EU, hardline populists in those countries.

Merkel vs. Trump

NBC News says she managed to “sidestepped a major political crisis” by securing more time to resolve the coalition rift over border controls.

But just moments later, US President Donald Trump sought to exploit the divisions within Merkel’s government to drive his own agenda and deflect attention from his administration’s policies towards Mexican immigrants, which has drawn fire in the US and even been criticised by his own wife.

In a direct warning to the American electorate, Trump added: “We don't want what is happening with immigration in Europe to happen with us!”

Crime statistics

German mass-circulation Bild newspaper described Trump’s intervention on the domestic debate of a western ally as “highly unusual.”

Others have questioned Trump’s claim that an influx of immigrants over the past few years has led to a rise in crime.

According to official figures released last month, Germany last year recorded its lowest number of criminal offences since 1992, with figures showing the crime rate is falling more quickly among non-German suspects.

But for now momentum appears to be with those seeking a harder line on new immigrants entering the EU.

European leaders have spent more than two years trying to agree common asylum rules, “but talks are deadlocked over whether there should be a compulsory system for allocating refugees to different member states” says The Guardian.

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