The vanishing asylum seeker

Timothy Hatton

07 April 2008



A decade ago, headlines about the asylum crisis appeared almost daily in the press. Asylum seekers, once demonised as bogus refugees and economic migrants, now hardly rate a mention from one month the next. And the tone of popular comment has gone from besieged to benign. There is a very good reason for this quiescence: the numbers have dropped dramatically. In the UK, new asylum applications fell from 103,080 in the peak year of 2002 to just 27,900 in 2007—a fall of 73 percent.

The fall of asylum

Government ministers have been quick to claim the credit (if credit there is) for getting the numbers down. Last month Liam Byrne, the UK Minister for Immigration, commented that "Stronger border controls are delivering falls in asylum claims - they're now at the lowest level for 14 years. And we are dealing with those cases faster than ever before.” This was just the latest in a series of series of jubilant announcements following Tony Blair’s commitment in 2003 to slash the numbers. Since then, stiff measures have been taken on processing asylum claims, on appeals and deportations, and on tightening up border controls.

So can the Government claim the credit? There is one big reason to be skeptical: applications have been declining over the most of the developed world. In the EU-15 the numbers fell from 393,450 in 2002 to 197,450 in 2007—a drop of 50 percent. Against this benchmark the UK Government might claim credit for a third or a half of the fall. But it is hardly a satisfactory measure of the effect of policy. After all UK applications might have fallen more strongly for reasons other than policy. On the other hand, other countries have toughened their policies too, especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and so part of the declines elsewhere may also be due to policy.

War and peace

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, those qualifying for asylum must demonstrate a ‘well founded fear of persecution’. In light of that fact, it is not surprising that most of those who claim asylum in the West are from war-torn countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The list of origin countries reads like a roll call for the hot spots of war, violence and civil strife. One study after another has demonstrated the effects of wars and human rights abuses on refugee counts and on the volume of asylum applications.

With ongoing wars against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and refugee crises in Darfur and the Horn of Africa, it is hard to believe that the world has become a safer place. Yet the evidence suggests that it has. Indices of war and terror suggest that, on average, conditions have improved in those countries most prone to violent upheavals. Measures of civil liberties, political rights and democracy point in the same direction. And over the longer term, economic conditions have improved as well. In order to explain the in fall in asylum applications we must take account of how these trends affect the number of new asylum claims. But we must also have some measure of policy

Measuring asylum policy

In the last decade, governments in Europe, North America and Australasia have been busy toughening their asylum regimes. As signatories to the Refugee Convention, they are in principle obliged to accept all those arriving on their territory who qualify as genuine refugees. But there are many ways of deterring would-be claimants.

One way is to restrict access for potential asylum seekers through visa restrictions, stronger passport controls, tighter policing of borders and sanctions against people-smuggling. Another is to toughen the refugee status determination procedure by narrowing the qualifying criteria, by deeming some claims to be ‘manifestly unfounded’, by speeding up the process, by limiting appeals and by enforcing deportation. A third strand of policy is to make conditions more uncomfortable for those undergoing the process by introducing measures to detain or disperse asylum seekers, cutting benefits, and limiting the right to seek employment.

In a recent paper I constructed a measure of policy change for 19 countries for the years 1997 to 2006 (Hatton 2008). Three indexes describing policy on access, processing, and asylum seeker welfare, respectively, each consist of five underlying components. For the 19 countries as a whole, all three dimensions of policy show a progressive tightening, but with significant differences in the trends for different countries.

Explaining asylum applications

In order to explain the trends in applications I analysed applications from 40 source countries to the 19 destinations from 1997 to 2006. I found that terror and political rights in source countries mattered more than measures of democracy or economic conditions. And there is no evidence of a steeper fall in applications after 2001 from Muslim countries once we take policy into account.
The policy indexes representing access and processing both had significant negative effects on the volume of applications but policy on asylum seeker welfare had no discernible effect. One implication is that the need to find a balance between punitive policies on living conditions and more positive refugee integration measures is less of a dilemma for policymakers than is sometimes believed.

How much of the fall is due to policy?

The results of this exercise can be used to estimate the effects of asylum policies. Table 1 compares the fall in applications with the part that is explained by policies on access and processing. For the 19 countries combined, applications fell by 328,129 between 2001 and 2006. About a third of this is explained by policy, with access policies contributing slightly more than processing policies. For the UK, the policy explains nearly 40 percent of the decline in applications—a substantial amount although perhaps less than government ministers would like to claim. Other countries provide interesting contrasts. In France, four fifths of the decline is accounted for by policy as compared with only a quarter for Germany.

Table 1. The effects of policy on asylum applications

Change in Applications 2001-6
Effect of Access Policies
Effect of Processing Policies
Effect of All Policies

Source: Hatton (2008), p. 44. Note that because policy affects applications non-linearly, the total policy effect differs from the sum of the components.

Government ministers should be wary of claiming too much. The sharp ups and downs in asylum applications owe much to the ebb and flow of violence and oppression in source countries. Just as the recent fall in applications cannot be attributed wholly to policy, a future rise in applications would not mean that policy had gone into reverse. But over the long term the deterrent effects of policy have been substantial. Between 1997 and 2006, across the 19 countries, policy reduced applications by around 140,000—a figure that exceeds the total fall in applications over the decade. Whether such figures are something to be proud of is, of course, another question.


Hatton, T. J. (2008), “The Rise and Fall of Asylum: What Happened and Why?” CEPR Discussion Paper 6752.
UNHCR (2008), "Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries 2008," at:



Topics:  Migration

Tags:  migration, asylum seekers, asylum applications

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