The migration crisis and refugee policy in Europe

Timothy Hatton 23 May 2016



The Syrian exodus has created a crisis that has thrown the existing European asylum system into chaos and has led to an increasingly polarised debate over extemporised solutions (e.g. Kirkegaard 2016). In this column, I review a range of data and research findings that are relevant to the debate. In that light, I argue in a recent paper that in the long term, we need to shift away from the current system of ‘spontaneous’ asylum migration towards a comprehensive resettlement programme (Hatton 2016b) that. Otherwise we risk an even greater political backlash than we have seen so far. 

Applications for asylum

Figure 1 shows annual number of applications for asylum lodged in Europe from 1892 to 2015. It shows that the steep increase since 2012 has surpassed the surge from the late 1980s by a wide margin. These data comprise applicants who have reached a destination country by independent means and then applied individually for asylum — sometimes called spontaneous asylum seekers. Some arrive with valid visas, but an increasingly large proportion arrive without authorisation. In the last few years the press and the public have been mesmerised by the numbers coming by boat across the Mediterranean and the Aegean. According to the EU Border agency, Frontex, these unauthorised border crossings increased from 95,000 in 2011 to 1.82 million in 2015.

Figure 1. Asylum applications in European countries, 1982-2015

Source: Hatton 2016b, Figure 1.

Applications for asylum enter into a process of refugee status determination. The individual may qualify under the definition in the 1951 Refugee Convention as “having a well-founded fear of persecution” or may be granted the right to remain on other grounds, often because it is impossible for them to return to the origin country. As Figure 2 shows, the total recognition rate fell steeply to less than 20% in 1992 and has since increased. By 2014 it was back to 50% and for 2015 it will be higher still. Over the whole period the average is less than one third although it would be a little higher if successful appeals were included. Unsuccessful applicants are required to leave (either voluntarily or by force). Nevertheless, a significant proportion remain as illegal immigrants. 

Figure 2. Refugee status recognition rates, 1982-2014

Source: Hatton 2016b, Figure 2.

What drives asylum applications?

The present crisis has rekindled the debate over whether those claiming asylum in Europe are genuine refugees or simply ‘economic migrants’ from poor countries seeking a better life. On one hand, it is argued that most applicants are from countries embroiled in civil wars and human rights abuse. On the other hand, it is pointed out that less than half of all applicants are recognised as refugees. So what drives asylum applications?

I estimate a model on panel data for asylum applications from 48 strife-prone countries to 19 OECD destinations over the period from 1997 to 2014. The results strongly support the view that violence and human rights abuse are among the most important factors, particularly as represented by the effect of the political terror scale. Economic imperatives also matter –asylum applications are negatively related to GDP per capita of the origin country. The choice of destination country is positively influenced by the existing stock of immigrants from the same origin and negatively by the distance between them (Hatton 2016a).

I also examine the effects of asylum policies that have been developed in destination countries, often with a view to deterring applications. I find that policies aimed at restricting access to the territory (border controls, carrier sanctions, etc.) significantly reduce the numbers. Tougher rules relating to decisions on granting refugee status also deter applications. For the 19 destinations in the dataset the overall effects of changes in policy between 1997 and 2005 was to reduce asylum applications by nearly 30%. From 2005 to 2014 policies in some countries were eased and so the effect was a marginal increase in applications.

Public opinion

In democratic countries politicians have to pay attention to public opinion as this constrains their policy options. Three aspects of public opinion deserve attention.

First, opinion has become more favourable towards genuine refugees. In 2002 and 2014 the European Social Survey (ESS) asked a question on whether the respondent agreed that “the government should be generous in judging refugee claims”. In the 14 countries in Table 1, the proportion disagreeing or disagreeing strongly declined, in some cases very steeply. On average, opinion became more pro-refugee by 15 percentage points. By contrast, opinion on admitting immigrants from poor countries outside Europe hardened – the share wanting to admit ‘a few’ or ‘none’ increased by an average of 4 percentage points.

Table 1. Percentage that disagree with being generous in judging refugee claims

Source: Hatton (2016b), Table 7.

Second, public opinion is not as anti-immigration as is sometimes portrayed. Among the 14 countries listed above the share wanting to see few or no immigrants from outside Europe was less than half. But it is massively negative on one particular issue – illegal immigration. According to another survey the proportion of respondents that is ‘worried about illegal immigration’ is more than twice as high as the proportion that is worried about legal immigration. And in 2015 Eurobarometer recorded that, across 27 EU countries, an average of 87% were in favour of additional measures to fight illegal immigration.

Third, despite the growth of Euroscepticism, there has been a remarkable increase in the proportion of respondents that would like to see decision-making on immigration conducted at the EU level rather than solely at the national level. In 2015 Eurobarometer asked – “Please tell me whether you are for or against it… A common European policy on migration”. The average response across 27 EU countries was 70% in favour (72% in the EU15). This suggests that the EU has a much greater mandate for setting immigration (and asylum) policies than is often believed.

Policy implications

Asylum policy exists to provide protection for refugees fleeing persecution, something that commands majority support. Yet existing asylum policy is dysfunctional. It requires that, in order to lodge a claim for asylum, potential applicants must first risk their lives in hazardous sea voyages, circumnavigating fences and dodging border guards, often at the hands of unscrupulous smugglers. It selects a range of migrants more than half of whom are rejected as genuine refugees and some of whom remain in the limbo of the informal economy. Worse still, it leaves behind many of those that are in the greatest need of protection, doing little little to assist them in the camps and shanty towns where they languish.

So what to do?

First, the incentives for ‘spontaneous’ asylum migration must be reduced. Border controls that have broken down need to be strengthened. As noted above, econometric evidence suggests that tighter borders deter applications. Specific examples are Spain’s international cooperation across the Western Mediterranean and the policies implemented by Australia in 2001 and 2013. This process is currently proceeding by default rather than by design. But the EU has transformed the largely ineffective Frontex system into a new European Border and Coast Guard with stronger and more independent powers. It remains to be seen if unauthorised entry by land and sea declines. That is certainly what Europeans want to see. But there is a big drawback – such a policy will inevitably deny access to genuine refugees as well as to those less likely to gain refugee status.

Second, many refugees are marooned in squalid refugee camps facing extreme hardship, disease, insecurity and often violence. They need more support in situ but, above all, a reasonable prospect of one of the durable solutions set out by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – local integration, repatriation or resettlement. A pitifully small number of about 80,000 are resettled each year, mainly facilitated by the UNHCR to meet quotas set by developed countries. Yet in 2015 the UNHCR identified 1.15 million as in need of resettlement. Europe offers about 10,000 resettlement places, shared among 19 European countries, most of which have tiny quotas. While there is a distinct commitment to resettlement, the numbers need to be increased by orders of magnitude in order to make a serious contribution. 

Third, in order to meet such aspirations, refugee hosting capacity must be increased. The number of asylum applications per capita is very unequal across EU member states. EU asylum policy has focused on harmonising policies and procedures and not on burden-sharing — that is, until the redistribution plan of August 2015. If refugee hosting is considered to be a locally produced public good, then in the absence of cooperation, it will be underprovided (Hatton 2015). But if policy were set by a supra-national authority, with an appropriate distribution mechanism, burdens could be made more equal and total capacity could be increased. Such policy would evidently also command public support.  


The current crisis has cast into sharp relief the inadequacies of the present asylum system. In the long term, it needs to shift away from asylum migration towards a substantial resettlement programme that would target those that most need our help. Such a policy would be politically feasible because it would work with the grain of public opinion rather than against it. Yet a radical shift towards resettlement is unlikely while the Syrian crisis continues at its current intensity. On one hand the, crisis has galvanised the EU into taking some steps in the right direction. On the other hand, the sheer magnitude of the crisis is an impediment to creating the resettlement places that are so badly needed.


Hatton, T J (2015), “Asylum Policy in the EU: The Case for Deeper Integration,” CESifo Economic Studies 61: 605-637.

Hatton, T J (2016a), “Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Policy in OECD Countries,” American Economic Review, Papers & Proceedings (forthcoming).

Hatton, T J (2016b), “Refugees and Asylum Seekers, the Crisis in Europe and the Future of Policy,” CEPR Discussion Paper 11271.

Kirgegaard, J F (2016), "How Europe will fail to address the migration crisis in early 2016",, 25 January.



Topics:  Migration

Tags:  migration, refugees, Syria, EU, migration crisis

Professor of Economics, Australian National University and University of Essex; and Research Fellow, CEPR