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Europe moves towards more restrictive, selective, and temporary refugee policies
“All countries became more restrictive after 2015,” researcher says.
For the past decade, European countries have grown more restrictive in whom they grant protection, and for how long that protection is granted.
This is the main finding of the a new research report led by senior researcher Vilde Hernes at Oslo Metropolitan University (OsloMet).
The report compares the responses of eight European countries to the high influxes of protection seekers in 2015-2016 and in 2022-2023. It includes updated analysis of policy responses up until June 2023, and is the first report of its kind.
Restrictive race to the bottom after 2015
“All the countries became more restrictive after 2015,” Hernes says.
The restrictions came in many different areas, such as protection permits, legal assistance, family reunification, and financial assistance, to name a few.
“However, these restrictions were not part of a unified response across Europe, but rather – as earlier studies have described it – a ‘national race to the bottom’, where countries competed to have the most restrictive policies, so as not to become a more attractive destination than others,” she says.
More unified response to Ukraine
In 2022, the researchers found a much more unified response to the high number of people fleeing Ukraine, at least when it comes to granting protection.
“The EU countries activated the temporary protection directive, which gave Ukrainians temporary protection up to three years. Denmark and Norway have made national legislation that largely mirror this,” Hernes says.
Nordic countries channelled Ukrainians through the regular asylum system where one had to formally apply for protection. However, the collective protection simplified the procedure, and there was online registration and automatic processing of applications.
Germany, Poland, and Austria did not channel them through the regular asylum system, but made registration procedures where one was granted rights upon registration, or just by having a Ukrainian passport.
The UK is the only outlier in this respect, as the only country who is not part of the Schengen Agreement.
“They have not implemented temporary collective protection mirroring the EU, but rather introduced three different visa schemes particularly aimed at Ukrainians,” Hernes says.
Dual approach to Ukrainians
In spite of easier access, Hernes and her team found that Ukrainians are not treated better than other protection seekers across the board.
“There is a dual approach to Ukrainians seeking protection. On the one hand, we see a more liberal trend when it comes to registration and access-practices. The introduction of collective, temporary permits was in itself an easing of requirements, and made the path to granted protection shorter and less extensive for Ukrainians, as it did not require an individual assessment,” she says.
Ukrainians also generally had the right to return to Ukraine temporarily without losing their protection status, the right to find their own accommodation, and the right to work.
Asylum inflows to European countries
- Have varied significantly over the past 10 years, with 2015-2016 and 2022-2023 being the absolute peak years.
- Many of the countries included in this research-project, such as Germany, Sweden, Austria, and Norway, were among the countries that received the highest number of asylum seekers arriving in 2015-2016 to Europe, both in absolute numbers and relative to their populations.
- For persons granted protection in Europe throughout 2015 to June 2023, the main sending countries are Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and since 2022, Ukraine.
- While most protection seekers from Ukraine fall within the EU or national protection schemes for collective protection, for other groups of asylum seekers, the recognition rates for the eight countries have been about 50 per cent. However, there are very large differences in recognition rates depending on the country of origin.
- While almost all applicants from Syria and Eritrea received protection, only half of those from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq did. From other countries, almost three out of four got their application for protection rejected.
- Although most of the countries studied have experienced substantial increases in the number of protection seekers, there are still large variations.
- Sweden has generally received a disproportionally larger share than other European countries, but this has declined over the last three years. They now receive a lower share than other countries.
- Poland received the lowest share of protection seekers up until 2022. After 2022, however, they received the highest number of persons fleeing Ukraine, with nearly 1.5 million Ukrainians seeking protection in Poland by the end of 2023.
On the other hand, policies on integration measures, financial assistance, and healthcare have been more restrictive for Ukrainians.
“Ukrainians have, as of today, no path to permanent residency, and they are often offered less assistance in the host country than people with a refugee status. In Sweden, for instance, Ukrainians granted temporary collective protection are still only entitled to emergency healthcare. They continue to be covered by the same rights as asylum seekers, even after they are granted protection,” Hernes says.
Shift in the public debate
This makes life a lot more uncertain for Ukrainians, the researcher argues. And it will only become more uncertain.
“Even though there has been a more unified response to the influx of Ukrainians, there is only one year left of the tree year protection permit. And there is still a lot of uncertainty as to how long the war in Ukraine will last, and how many more will be seeking protection. That may lead to more restrictions,” Hernes says.
For example, Norway has received about 72.000 Ukrainians. They now make up one per cent of the entire population.
“Here, we now see a shift in the public debate, with municipalities saying they don’t have enough housing or capacity to administer all those granted protection, and some are calling for more restrictions. It may be that we are on the brink of another race to the bottom, like we saw in 2015,” she says.
Hernes et al. Governance and policy changes during times of high influxes of protection seekers. A comparative governance and policy analysis in eight European countries, 2015-June 2023, NIBR Report, vol. 8, 2023.
- A move towards more restrictive, selective and temporary policies.
- Almost all countries introduced more restrictive policies related to protection statuses after 2015.
- In 2022, the main policy changes were related to displaced persons from Ukraine.
- All countries - except for the UK - implemented a form of collective, temporary protection for displaced persons from Ukraine.
- Substantial differences in the Ukrainian refugees’ rights and restrictions between the studied countries.
- In some countries and for some policy areas, Ukrainian refugees have more liberal rights than other refugee groups. However, in other areas, Ukrainian refugees have more restricted access to services in the host countries, and overall they have more temporary permits than others.
- Most countries have introduced selective policies for displaced persons from Ukraine. However, this selective trend was not a new phenomenon.
- Several countries have introduced differentiated rights and restrictions for various subgroups already before and after 2015, distinguishing permits and rights based on either country of origin, religion, or mode of arrival.
About the project
- The project set out to examine what the similarities and differences across European countries were in both governance and policy development before, during and after the high influxes of protection seekers in 2015/16 and 2022/23.
- It compares the responses of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the UK, Germany, Austria, and Poland during the past decade.
- NIBR has conducted the comparative report – along with eight country-specific reports – together with UCL (University College London), University of Eastern Finland, Centre of Migration Research University of Warsaw, German Centre for integration and Migration Research (DeZIM) and University of Vienna.
- The report has been financed by IMDi - The Directorate of Integration and Diversity in Norway.
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