Seeking asylum: Trends and policies in the OECD

Timothy Hatton interviewed by Viv Davies, 15 July 2011

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<p style="padding: 0px 0px 0.5em; margin: 0px;"><em>Viv Davies interviews Timothy J Hatton for Vox</em></p>
<p style="padding: 0px 0px 0.5em; margin: 0px;"><em>July 2011</em></p>
<p style="padding: 0px 0px 0.5em; margin: 0px;"><em>Transcription of a VoxEU audio interview []</em><b>&nbsp;</b></p>
<p><b>Viv Davies</b>: &nbsp;Hello and welcome to Vox Talks, a series of audio interviews with leading economists from around the world.</p>
<p>I'm Viv Davies, from the Centre for Economic Policy Research. It's the 13th of July, 2011 and I'm talking to Professor Timothy Hatton, of the University of Essex and the Australian National University, about a book he has recently written, titled <i>Seeking Asylum: Trends and Policies in the OECD</i>.</p>
<p>The book offers a sober assessment of what drives asylum applications and what asylum policies have achieved. It argues that policies towards asylum seekers should be based on historical insight, quantitative evidence, and a realistic view of the political economy of asylum policy.</p>
<p>The author presents the case for a fully integrated Europe‑wide asylum policy. I began the interview by asking Professor Hatton why he thought the book needed to be written.</p>
<p><b>Timothy Hatton</b>: &nbsp;Well, that's a good question. It's a pretty short book and I wanted to provide an objective overview and introduction to the whole issue of asylum particularly in European countries for people who don't necessarily know all the details.</p>
<p>The existing literature is often written by lobby groups and people who have a particular point of view to put. And the key element in this book is to try and give as objective an overview as I possibly can, drawing on the available quantitative evidence, being realistic about the political economy surrounding it, rather than arguing a very specific case from a specific point of view.</p>
<p><b>Viv</b>: &nbsp;You suggest in the book that policy towards asylum seekers should be based on, as you said, historical insights and on quantitative evidence and on a more realistic view of the political economy of asylum policy. So could you perhaps elaborate a little bit more on that for us?</p>
<p><b>Timothy</b>: &nbsp;Yes. I think the historical dimension is important in order to understand how we've got to where we are today.</p>
<p>I think it's relevant particularly to understand the origins and evolutions of the international refugee regime going back to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Because that, after all, is the foundation for asylum policy in developed countries right through to the present day.</p>
<p>What's happened since then is that in the light of changing geopolitics, changing social views, that we've modified that in various ways because the convention itself was rather a loose framework in many ways and one that can be built on by individual governments in the policies that they make. So that's the first thing, to see how the whole thing fits together in terms of how the policy works.</p>
<p>Second, quantitative evidence is important I think because you can find all sorts of different views out there put forward by politicians and advocates of one view or another. Just to give an example, saying that, &lsquo;Well, if you introduce tougher asylum policies in one respect or another respect, this won't have any effect on the numbers who apply for asylum.&rdquo; Or, &ldquo;It will have a big effect.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&nbsp;So the question is what is the answer? How do we find out what the impact of these policies is? So that's just one example of how quantitative evidence is important, because it narrows down the scope for making all sorts of wild claims on one direction or another, really concentrating the mind a bit on reasonable members that are supported by empirical evidence.</p>
<p>And I guess the third thing that you asked me was about taking a realistic view of the political economy of asylum policy. And we do see people saying, &ldquo;Well, let's just open the doors and let's let as many asylum seeker in who can possibly qualify.&rdquo; Or, &ldquo;Let's just keep them all out.&rdquo;</p>
<p>We have to work within a framework where whatever policy is adopted is, broadly speaking, acceptable to the majority of voters. So we look at things like public opinion polls and we try and understand how that feeds into the political economy, how the interplay between public opinion, between the press and the media, and from then onto government policy. Unless we have a reasonably clear idea about what the constraints are that that imposes, we don't really know what the policy space is.</p>
<p><b>Viv</b>: &nbsp;The European Union's Schengen Agreement of 1995 has been described as, &quot;A concrete expression of the integration of the European continent, guaranteeing the free movement of people across 25 countries.&quot; But Schengen was never designed to cope with the migratory pressures that are building up in North Africa, for example. Do you think that EU countries should have the right to adopt robust measures, such as stricter border controls, in order to prevent the entry of large numbers of immigrants seeking asylum from the troubles and political unrest in their home countries?</p>
<p><b>Timothy</b>: &nbsp;I think it's an important issue. My view is that the Schengen Agreement is very important to the EU countries that are members of it and that we do risk undermining the Schengen Agreement, as we've seen in the recent altercations between Italy and France over this.</p>
<p>What I would say is that the solution shouldn't be to suspend the Schengen Agreement or make it much more conditional than it is at the moment, but to organize our response to asylum seekers and refugees in a way that will ensure that we don't undermine that Schengen Agreement. And in the book I've got some proposals about redistributing refugees, for example, in a way that wouldn't put too much pressure on an individual country. So it wouldn't be necessary for the country to adopt much tougher policies than all other countries, nor would it be necessary for other countries to then start putting barriers up and undermining the Schengen Agreement.</p>
<p><b>Viv</b>: &nbsp;Ninety percent of asylum seekers go to 10 European Union states. Why do you think that is?</p>
<p><b>Timothy</b>: &nbsp;That goes back to looking at historical circumstances. There are a variety of reasons why asylum seekers choose one state over another. But what's quite interesting I think is that it's often not so much the economic advantages of one country over another, or the so‑called welfare states, as a lot of people suggest. Those things matter, but the most important reason why there's a great asymmetry in the distribution of applications across countries is first of all, historic ties, colonial ties and things like that which mean that there's a common language, for example.</p>
<p>We know that Algerians often go to...people from French West Africa often go to France and people who come from Sri Lanka often go to Britain and so on. So those historic connections are very, very important. And of course they cumulate because once there are very well established communities from a particular source country that tends to mean that future asylum seekers from that country will go to where there's already an established community.</p>
<p>So for example, when Turkey had asylum seekers coming from it, which it doesn't really anymore, they typically went to Germany. Not surprisingly. There was a very large Turkish community there. So that's one reason.</p>
<p>Second thing is location. Location is very important. As we saw in the 1990s after the demise of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of the people coming from Eastern Europe flowed into Austria and Germany. They were the nearest EU states at the time.</p>
<p>Similarly, if you think about people moving out of North Africa, they're going to be going to Spain, France, Italy, Cyprus and Malta. Those are the countries that are easiest to get to. So those are the things that are important, historic ties, existing communities and proximity.</p>
<p><b>Viv</b>: &nbsp;You mentioned Malta then, and there's been quite an issue with Malta lately. Why do you think that there's such a resistance and lack of solidarity amongst European countries to the proposal to suspend the so‑called Dublin Regulations, under which the EU country in which an asylum seeker first lands is the country that processes their claim for protection and also the country which they'll be tied to if their claim succeeds?</p>
<p><b>Timothy</b>: &nbsp;I'm not sure I have the answer to that. The original reason for the Dublin Regulation was that it was assumed that asylum seekers were going to one country. If they got rejected, they went to the next country and applied again, and if they didn't succeed there, they went to a further country. So, the fundamental reason for the Dublin Regulation was to ensure that anybody who was applying for asylum in the EU would only be applying to one country, and not &ldquo;asylum shopping&rdquo; as it was called at the time.</p>
<p>And that's been an idea that's become very much embedded in the whole EU asylum system. I personally think that the Dublin Regulation ought to be abandoned because I think, if you think about how it works, it doesn't actually work very well, because not all that many people get reassigned under the Dublin Regulation.</p>
<p>But what it means essentially is that states that are on the border of the EU typically face most of the pressure, and I don't think that's an appropriate way of organizing things.</p>
<p><b>Viv</b>: &nbsp;In the book, you called for an integrated Europe‑wide asylum system. How would that work in practice and how much progress would you say is currently being made towards developing such a coherent framework?</p>
<p><b>Timothy</b>: &nbsp;OK. This is an important question, it's one of the things that I'm most concerned with. So far, we've had three stages of European integration on the road to the common European asylum system.</p>
<p>There has been the Tampere period, the Hague Programme and there's the Stockholm Programme. And what those have aimed to do is to produce a series of directives which basically provide minimum standards. Not common standards, but minimum standards for the processing of asylum claims, for how asylum seekers should be treated for a whole range of different criteria.</p>
<p>So, basically, the process has been one of harmonization of minimum standards. That's what we've got to so far. Now, alongside that, we've had three other developments. One is the development of the common EU border system known as Frontex, which applies sort of a common set of regulations throughout the external border of the EU.</p>
<p>In practice, that's been a bit variable, in particular, for example, it's been argued that Greece doesn't have sufficiently strong border protection as some other countries do. So, it does vary a bit around the EU.</p>
<p>Secondly, the European Refugee Fund which was originally set up in 2000 is a common pool, which is designed to assist individual countries in processing and integrating refugees. That's the second thing.</p>
<p>And the third thing, which is fairly recent, is the setting up of the European Asylum Support Office, which has been based in Malta, and started its operations just this year, which is a body, which is a sort of directorate, aimed at assisting and providing technical support in gathering data and information and disseminating this to individual countries. So, that's the sort of the progress that's been made so far.</p>
<p>Mind you, as I say in the book, is that we need to go a lot further than that, or somewhat further than that, in developing a properly integrated system. So that means further steps towards harmonization, not minimum standards, but common standards. It means having an administration that works through individual country institutions to provide common methods and criteria for determining refugee status on things like appeals and detention. And all these sorts of measures need to be properly harmonized, which they haven't been so far.</p>
<p>And then I think we also need to strengthen European Refugee Fund, in order to provide support to those countries that are taking additional asylum seekers, more than would be the average for the EU. So, I'm suggesting financial support through the European Refugee Fund, and I'm also suggesting that the European Asylum Support Office should be strengthened and made EU‑wide, not just isolated on Malta and should be given power to redistribute asylum seekers.</p>
<p><b>Viv</b>: &nbsp;How politically motivated is the policy or reluctance to move on a common framework? How politically motivated would you say those issues are?</p>
<p><b>Timothy</b>: &nbsp;I'm not quite sure what to say about that, really. We know that a number of countries are quite keen to keep their asylum policies national policies. But if you look at a recent report that was submitted to the European Commission, which involved interviews with individual country administrators, senior civil servants. The evidence, I think is that, there is much more willingness to cooperate than sometimes you think is there on the surface, because of the sort of the press rhetoric that we often see.</p>
<p>So, I actually think that the possibilities for cooperation, for further integration, are greater than the superficial sort of Punch and Judy politics would suggest.</p>
<p><b>Viv</b>: &nbsp;So, you're optimistic, in a sense, about the future direction of creating a coherent framework for asylum policy?</p>
<p><b>Timothy</b>: &nbsp;Well, one reason I'm optimistic is that if you look at public opinion surveys, actually more than half of all individuals surveyed, would agree to or would be happy with asylum, on immigration policy as well, being run at a supranational level. In other words, at the EU or international level. In our case, it's the EU that's relevant. So it's not clear that there's very strong public opinion supporting specific national policies.</p>
<p><b>Viv</b>: &nbsp;So, what would you say then, finally, Tim, what you would say are the most urgent priorities facing policy makers in terms of asylum policy?</p>
<p><b>Timothy</b>: &nbsp;Well, I think the most urgent question is, what to do about North Africa? We've seen North African asylum seekers have been moving into Lampedusa and to Malta, and that's certainly put pressure on those particular points of entry.</p>
<p>So far, we haven't had a mass exodus in comparison with, say, the Kosovo Crisis, or other crises that we've experienced in the past. But it's still possible for that to happen and I would say that we need to be better equipped to deal with that. And the instrument that is most relevant is that so‑called Temporary Protection Directive.</p>
<p>This was set up in the aftermath of the Kosovo Crisis, and the idea was that when there is a sudden, temporary influx of asylum seekers or refugees, particularly when there's been generalized violence happening somewhere, as there was in Kosovo, that a mechanism is provided for redistributing those refugees around the EU.</p>
<p>Now, the trouble with the Temporary Protection Directive is it doesn't provide a triggering mechanism for when that should be activated. And it doesn't provide a formula for redistribution and that's what's badly needed at the moment, I think.</p>
<p><b>Viv</b>: &nbsp;Tim Hatton, thanks very much for talking to us today.</p>
<p><b>Timothy</b>: &nbsp;It's been a great pleasure, thank you, Viv.</p>

Topics:  Migration

Tags:  migration, asylum seekers, asylum applications

See Tim Hatton's recent summary of Seeking Asylum: Trends and Policies in the OECD on Vox

Download the full pdf for free here.

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


CEPR Policy Research