Asylum trends: Europe and Australia compared

This week the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released figures showing a fall in the number of asylum claims in the industrialised world over the last ten years. In an accompanying press release, it noted that: 'a total of 358 800 asylum applications were lodged in industrialized countries in 2010, which was 5 per cent fewer than in 2009. The latest number was the fourth lowest in the last decade and almost half (42 per cent) of the 620 000 applications filed in 2001'.

In contrast, while Australia received a relatively small number of applications (8250 from a total of 358 800), there was an increase in the number lodged according to the UNHCR press release: 'Australia received 8250 applications - a 33 per cent increase compared to 2009, but down more than third from 2001'.

This raises the question why would the number of applications increase in Australia, but decrease in Europe?
There are various factors at play worldwide that need to be taken into account when comparing trends in application lodgements between countries. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, points out in his press release, while changes in 'push factors' may be influential, declining rates in certain countries may be due to tougher border controls; 'We need to study the root causes to see if the decline is because of fewer push factors in areas of origin, or tighter migration control in countries of asylum.'

So what might be some of the key factors influencing the decline in applications in Europe?

In terms of asylum claims in Europe it is important to note that while most unauthorised arrivals (some of whom may be asylum seekers) and other 'irregular migrants' do not arrive by boat, many asylum seekers do. Southern Europe (in particular along the coasts of Italy, Malta and Spain) are where the bulk (p. 2) of the unauthorised boat arrivals occur. According to a 2009 UNHCR publication (p. 11), only about 15 per cent of Italy’s 'irregular migrants' arrive by sea, but it is estimated that people on board these boats make up about 70 per cent of Italy's asylum seeker arrivals. The UNHCR's press release on asylum trends for 2010 points out that: 'within Europe, the largest decline (-33 per cent from 2009) was seen in countries in the south, mainly because fewer people requested protection in Malta, Italy and Greece'.

In contrast, a number of other European countries, particular those in the North, experienced an increase in asylum applications. For example, asylum claims in Sweden increased by 32 per cent from 2009 levels, a similar percentage increase to that experienced in Australia, although with much larger overall numbers–24 190 in 2009 compared to 31 820 in 2010. Germany experienced a 49 per cent increase, from 27 650 claims to 41 330.

Tougher border protection policies in parts of southern Europe in recent years have almost certainly influenced the dramatic declines in that region. In particular the 'push back' policy introduced by Italy in collaboration with Libya in 2008 to turn boats back before asylum claims could be lodged led to a significant decrease in boat arrivals in the region. Similarly, in May 2010 Spain renewed a bi-lateral agreement with Senegal permitting Europe's border protection agency, Frontex, to operate from Dakar. In a July 2010 press release, Frontex noted a dramatic decrease in irregular migration in southern Europe since 2009, including interceptions on the Spanish and Italian coasts, due to 'reduced employment opportunities for irregular immigrants in the EU, combined with stricter migration and asylum policies in Member States and more effective co-operation with key countries of origin.'

However, due to the current unrest in both Tunisia and Libya, Italy has recently requested the assistance of Frontex to deal with the renewed influx of unauthorised boat arrivals on Italy's coast—6000 in February alone. According to the media, the Italian Government has claimed that almost 15 000 people have arrived in Lampedusa since the beginning of the year. Presumably such a large influx will generate an increase in asylum applications in the region.

It should also be noted that Italy's 'push back' policy, while arguably successful in achieving its aims (in the short term at least), has been highly controversial and is currently the subject of a legal challenge in the European Court of Human Rights.

Over the last decade many countries in Europe, not just those in the south, have shown an increasing determination to reduce the number of claims lodged within their territories. Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands have also been criticised for removing and returning Iraqis to certain parts of Iraq deemed to be relatively safe in comparison to the acknowledged conflict zones. Others, such as Greece, have attracted criticism for their low asylum recognition rates generally.


While total asylum applications declined in Europe in 2010, applications in Australia have risen following an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat. However it should of course be remembered that not all asylum seekers in Australia arrive by boat–in both 2009 and 2010 the second largest group of asylum seekers in Australia was people from China, the majority of whom (if not all) arrive by air with a valid visa.

While there was a decrease in claims lodged by people from Afghanistan worldwide in 2010, Afghan asylum applications still represented the second largest number of claims in the industrialised world. As the bulk of Australia's boat arrivals in recent years have consisted primarily of people from the conflict zones of Afghanistan (and to a lesser extent Sri Lanka and Iraq) it could be argued that 'push factors' have contributed to trends in applications lodged in Australia. It is interesting to note that Sweden, which recorded an overall increase in asylum applications similar to Australia's, also experienced an increase in asylum seekers from Afghanistan.

Similarly, it could be argued that the repatriation (voluntary return) of large numbers of Afghan refugees in 2002 may have affected trends in boat arrivals and asylum applications lodged in Australia at that time. During the last wave of boat arrivals in Australia in 2001, people from Afghanistan made up one third of the global refugee population according to the UNHCR. A decrease in boat arrivals in Australia from Afghanistan and elsewhere in 2002 coincided with the repatriation to their home country in 2002 of more than 2.4 million refugees (the largest level since 1994)—Afghans constituted 80 per cent of these returns.

Between 2003 and 2005 the global number of refugees dropped to the lowest levels since 1980 and in 2005 the UNHCR reported that although Afghanistan still contributed one third of the global refugee population 'due to continued voluntary repatriation, the number of Afghan refugees dropped by 10 per cent during the year'. By 2009 the number of Afghan refugees worldwide had increased once again, from 2.1 million at the start of 2006 to 2.9 million at the start of 2009.

The vast majority of asylum seekers and refugees are hosted in developing countries, so the burden of assisting the world’s asylum seekers and refugees actually falls to some of the world’s poorest countries. UNHCR’s data shows that Pakistan is host to the largest number of refugees worldwide—mostly from Afghanistan.

Research suggests that the determinants of asylum flows and the number of applications lodged in individual countries are very complex. Irrespective of the scale of the problem, or the number of applications lodged, or whether asylum seekers were 'pushed' or 'pulled' to a particular region, governments in Europe and Australia alike continue to struggle in their attempts to strike an appropriate balance between honouring international obligations to protect refugees and protecting national borders. The issues involved continue to strongly influence government policy and to be an emotive and divisive political issue around the world.

Compiled by Janet Phillips and Harriet Spinks.

Key Parliamentary Library publications
Boat arrivals since 1976
Seeking Asylum: Australia’s humanitarian response to a global challenge
Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts?
Developments in Australian refugee law and policy 2007-10: Labor’s first term in office

(Image source: women&lang=en&sf)
Tags: asylum, refugees


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