Pierre Georges Van Wolleghem, Hakan G. Sicakkan – Why do recognition rates for asylum seekers differ so dramatically across the EU?

Asylum seekers are handled with wide differences, country by country, depending largely on the competence of the government concerned.

Pierre Georges Van Wolleghem is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Hakan G. Sicakkan is a Professor, both in the Department of Comparative Politics at the University of Bergen

Cross-posted from EUROPP


Every year, more than a million asylum applications are lodged worldwide. In 2021, a total of 1.4 million claims were made, 648 thousand of which were in the European Union, but only a fraction of these will eventually lead to protection. In 2021, 22% of first instance decisions in the EU granted refugee status; another 17% granted other protection statuses.

If these averages may seem low, it should be noted that they hide tremendous differences from country to country. Recognition rates may vary from 0 to almost 100% for claimants coming from the same origin countries. By way of example, let us consider decisions concerning Syrian applicants in 2016, in the midst of the refugee crisis (no need to recall that Syria is undergoing a civil war since 2011). The figure below displays recognition rates for refugee and other statuses across EU countries.

Figure: Recognition rates for refugee status and other statuses for Syrian applicants in the EU28, 2016

Source: Authors’ elaboration based on UNHCR data

About 74% of the decisions made in Belgium (BEL) granted refugee status (22% granted other statuses) while only 12% of decisions in Croatia (HRV) led to the same outcome (8% for other statuses). In sum, two asylum seekers fleeing persecution from the same country may end up in a very different situation if refuge is sought in one country rather than another. Such differences may have dire consequences on the rights and lives of asylum seekers, thus casting a shadow on the ability of the international protection apparatus to protect those who need it.

In a new study, we posit that variation in recognition rates may very well be explained by the characteristics of national administrations. More precisely, an effective administration, with solid prior experience in asylum matters, will likely process applications in a way that is compatible with the goals pursued by the United Nations’ 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (Geneva Convention for short). We also argue that a competent administration is better equipped to withstand political pressures which, in these times of rising populism and far-right support, may weigh against the rights of asylum seekers.

The role of the administration in recognition decisions

Despite an ongoing policy harmonisation process, protection in the EU comes in different shapes and forms but not all statuses are equal. We distinguish between two types of statuses.

One is refugee status. This flows from the aforementioned Geneva Convention, and is the most generous type of status towards its beneficiaries: longer residence permits, more lenient conditions for family reunion, and eased acquisition of citizenship, to name but a few examples. Second, there is a broad group of ‘other statuses’ which are somewhat more flexible – meaning they grant more discretion to national decision-makers – in terms of procedures for their granting and in terms of the rights they give access to.

How does protection recognition work? Granting (or rejecting) protection is the result of an administrative process through which applicants’ claims are evaluated against the grounds established in law for different statuses. Importantly, this process converts a large variety of individual situations into a binary outcome: either protection is granted, or it is not. It is therefore an eminently administrative process, and not a straightforward one. Yet, there has been little research interest in the role of state machineries in determining protection needs. In contrast, we consider that this is the first place one should look for explanations and our research does just that.

We consider that an effective administration, and one that has specific experience in asylum matters, is better equipped to evaluate protection grounds. Its staff consists of transparently selected and trained professionals who act in depoliticised ways in their function as civil servants. The administration also avails itself of a dense set of rules which guarantees procedural certainty, accountability, and predictability.

Nevertheless, in a context marked by rising scepticism towards migration, the process through which one becomes a refugee is inevitably politically charged. Thus, political actors – government first and foremost – may attempt to exert pressure on the administration to achieve further control on immigration. We posit that a solid administration is likely to withstand political pressures and conduct its activities independently of government’s preferences.

Sound institutions to guarantee a fair right to protection

Our analysis considers recognition of protection for both refugee status and other statuses in the 28 member states of the EU from 2000 to 2018. We find that administrative effectiveness does translate into higher recognition rates where the likelihood of rights being violated in origin countries is high. However, at comparable levels of rights violation, effectiveness tends to decrease recognition of protection.

This suggests that the procedures followed in such contexts are more stringent, and may thus place greater burden of proof on claimants. This being said, an effective administration that also has long-standing experience in asylum matters likely recognises protection more often, provided the conditions in origin countries warrant it. Differently, governments’ political preferences significantly affect recognition rates, an effect that is however mitigated by a capable administration that is less prone to yielding to political pressure.

Importantly, our findings also point to the existence of a trade-off between refugee status and other statuses. Namely, where the overall political climate is relatively open to migration, more asylum seekers are granted refugee status, which is more favourable to the recipients. When the political context is more restrictive, asylum seekers are granted lower protection statuses. The capable administration, which is itself embedded in the overall political context, carries out its tasks accordingly, with a tendency to decrease recognition rates overall, albeit less so for refugee status.

Taken together, our findings show that variation in recognition rates is most likely due to a combination of features of states’ administrative machineries and the political context in destination countries. Under international and EU law, states are to treat asylum seekers fairly. In this perspective, political factors should not affect recognition. Yet, they do, and this presents additional risks for the success of the international community’s efforts to protect refugees.

Rights already enshrined in EU member states’ legal orders may come under threat when they are politicised, but our findings suggest that strong administrations built around these rights may reduce the risk of violations. This requires establishing a complex set of institutions, specific procedures, and rules of conduct.

For more information, see the authors’ accompanying paper at European Union Politics

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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