LSE research on asylum policy in the European Union (EU) has informed reforms to the system of shared responsibility for refugees across member states.
What was the problem?
Between 2013 and 2020, more than five million asylum seekers applied for protection in the EU.
In 2015 alone, more than one million people arrived in Europe to escape conflict in their own countries (notably Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq), with many crossing the Mediterranean Sea or travelling overland to cross the EU’s eastern borders. This large number of arrivals, and the strains it exerted on external border countries, intensified pressure on the EU and its member states to develop fairer and more equitable policies on refugee protection. Under the existing regulations (the “Dublin regulations”), final responsibility for asylum seekers remains with the country through which they first entered the EU, leading to an unequal impact across member states.
The EU needed to re-examine this policy and consider reform that was both equitable between member states and effective at helping some of the world’s most vulnerable individuals find protection from persecution.
What did we do?
Research by LSE’s Migration Studies Unit, led by Dr Eiko Thielemann, has generated concrete policy recommendations on how to improve the sharing of responsibilities for asylum seekers between countries. This research has addressed three types of burden-sharing initiatives: regulatory harmonisation (sharing policy); financial compensation (sharing money); and physical allocation (sharing people). Its findings on the limitations of the first two demonstrated the need for new physical allocation mechanisms, which has been the focus of the Migration Studies Unit’s recent research.
Thielemann’s work on the determinants of asylum flows has demonstrated that the EU’s attempts to achieve equitable responsibilities for refugees through policy harmonisation have been fundamentally flawed. He found that even if the EU succeeded in harmonising national policies, the unequal distribution of asylum seekers would persist given differences in the “structural pull factors”, such as geographic location or labour market opportunities. EU harmonisation initiatives have undermined member states’ ability to use distinctive policy tools to counteract the effect of these country-specific factors, and so have undermined rather than advanced the goal of fair burden-sharing. The EU therefore needs complementary responsibility-sharing initiatives.
The European Parliament commissioned Thielemann to co-author a report which drew on his earlier work on the European Refugee Fund (ERF). It found that such financial instruments remain highly ineffective tools. Ultimately only new, physical mechanisms would make a significant contribution to a more equitable distribution of asylum costs across member states.
He also found that the EU’s principal instrument for the physical relocation of asylum seekers, the Dublin III Regulation, encourages burden-shifting on the basis of geographic coincidence rather than capacity, since it places responsibility on the country an asylum seeker first entered the EU, which is typically a country with an external border. The ineffectiveness of voluntary relocation mechanisms became tragically evident when the system broke down during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. This reinforced the Migration Studies Unit’s findings that a revised allocation mechanism, based on member states’ capacities, is necessary to achieve more equitable and effective responsibility-sharing.
The Migration Studies Unit's research has made sustained contributions to EU policymaking. Its findings have directly informed pre-legislative policy reports, with some of its main recommendations adopted by the EU Council.
In response to the 2015 migrant crisis, the European Commission asked an external consultancy, ICF International, to produce two reports evaluating the Dublin regulation, and identifying shortcomings and options for reform. Thielemann contributed to these two studies, particularly the second one. This recommended alternatives to Dublin, including a physical redistribution mechanism based on capacity. In making these recommendations, Thielemann drew on his earlier high-profile interventions on the EU policy process. In 2015 he had presented options for reforming the European asylum system, including advising Members of the European Parliament on several occasions.
Across his work he has called for three concrete reforms. Firstly, the EU should strengthen physical (people-sharing) solidarity instruments; secondly it should introduce a permanent responsibility-allocation mechanism based on capacity; and finally it should move from “voluntary” to “mandatory” (binding) contributions to EU asylum efforts.
The most prominent new asylum laws proposed and adopted by the EU since 2015 have incorporated all three of these elements. On 22 September 2015, the Commission proposed and the Council adopted the EU’s first mandatory, quota-based physical redistribution mechanisms to provide emergency help to EU countries facing the highest number of asylum seekers. This stipulated the physical relocation of up to 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to be resettled in other member states, using objective and quantifiable capacity indicators – such as GDP per capita and population size – to determine quotas. Europe’s politicians won praise for having the political courage to agree to this. These changes started to provide significant benefits for over-burdened countries, with around 40,000 people relocated in the first two years of its implementation. While much remains to be done, these reforms have helped to improve reception conditions for refugees and improved protection opportunities for forced migrants.
The EU Commission has since published proposals for a reformed Dublin system (“Dublin plus”), with provisions for a permanent and mandatory capacity-based relocation instrument. While these proposals were eventually endorsed by the European Parliament, opposition by some member states led to years of protracted negotiations. In the run-up to the migration-focused Finnish EU Council Presidency in 2019, Thielemann was invited to participate in high-level, face-to-face meetings with policymakers. He also spoke at a conference held to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1999 Tampere Council Conclusions, which shaped the EU’s current asylum policy. This aimed to renew the impetus to address burden-sharing issues as part of negotiations on the EU’s new migration and asylum package, put forward by the new Commission under Ursula von der Leyen in September 2020.
These proposals acknowledge the shortcomings of the Dublin regulation, and reflect the core recommendations Thielemann has frequently put forward. They emphasise that solidarity through physical relocation should be widened and reference the need for fairness in relation to member states’ capacity. It is clear the proposals constitute a step towards more binding mechanisms. As Commissioner Ylva Johansson stated: “It’s obvious to everybody that ad hoc solidarity or voluntary solidarity is not enough … It has to be mandatory.”
Ultimately, by helping to shift the EU’s policy debate on refugee responsibility-sharing towards physical relocation initiatives that are capacity-oriented and mandatory, Thielemann’s research has helped to increase the effectiveness of the EU’s response. In doing this, the research is helping to improve the chances of the tens of thousands of refugees who come to Europe each year to find protection from persecution.