Members' Research Service By / March 22, 2023

Migration [European Youth Event 2023]

The European Union shares responsibility for migration policy with the national governments of its member countries, who have agreed on common standards on legal migration and receiving asylum-seekers in a fair and dignified manner.

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Written by Anita Orav.

The European Youth Event will bring together thousands of young people in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, on 9 and 10 June 2023, to share ideas about the future of Europe. This introduction to one of the major topics to be discussed during the EYE event is one of 11 prepared by the Parliament’s Research Service (EPRS). It offers an overview of the main lines of EU action and policy in the area concerned, and aims to act as a starting point for discussions during the event. You can find them all on this link.

The European Union shares responsibility for migration policy with the national governments of its member countries, who have agreed on common standards on legal migration and receiving asylum-seekers in a fair and dignified manner. However, the EU is still in the process of reforming its asylum and migration policy.

Migration to the EU

Migration to Europe from non-EU countries has been substantial over recent decades, as Europe was historically considered a continent of relative economic prosperity and political stability. In January 2021, 23.7 million nationals of non-EU countries were resident in the EU, representing 5.3 % of the total EU population. Most migrants, approximately 2.25‑3 million per year, arrive in the EU through legal channels. However, wars and instability in neighbouring countries have also forced people to leave their countries; increasing arrivals of migrants through irregular channels as people continue to flee countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Venezuela. After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, a new wave of displaced people reached the EU seeking protection.

Legal migration and labour market

Many people arrive in the EU to work, study, or join family members. The EU legal migration framework covers these movements of non-EU (or ‘third-country’) nationals. Legal migration is part of a balanced common EU migration policy, which aims to benefit migrants, their countries of origin and the countries of destination. Welcoming migrant workers can also be beneficial to the EU’s economy, not least because the European population is ageing and its economy increasingly depends on high-skilled jobs. The EU is in the process of reforming the legal migration framework, which should reduce the incentive to use irregular channels.

Seeking international protection in the EU

International protection – asylum – is a fundamental right and an international obligation, as recognised in the 1951 Geneva Convention on the protection of refugees, which currently binds 149 states globally, including all EU countries. The principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits returning refugees to a country where their life or freedom is at risk, is a key element.

In the EU – an area of freedom of movement without internal borders – national authorities share the international responsibility for receiving asylum-seekers in a fair and dignified manner. While EU countries are in charge of processing asylum applications in accordance with their national laws, together they have set common EU standards under the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). Within this system, the central element is the Dublin Regulation, which establishes the country responsible for processing an asylum application. By default, it is the first country in the EU which the person entered. Understandably, after increased refugee flows in 2015‑2016, countries at the EU’s external borders became overburdened, straining their national asylum systems and resulting in poor conditions for asylum-seekers and lower recognition of asylum claims. Consequently, many asylum-seekers travelled on to other EU countries, where they believed they would find better conditions and a higher chance of a successful application. This created a situation where only a few of the 27 EU countries received the bulk of all asylum applications. Taking action to overcome these problems is all the more important as the numbers of asylum-seekers are growing again: in 2022, EU+ countries (27 European Union Member States, plus Norway and Switzerland) received some 966 000 applications for asylum, up more than 50 % from 2021, and the largest number since 2016.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU – for the first time ever – activated the Temporary Protection Directive to help people fleeing the war. This support includes direct humanitarian aid, emergency civil protection assistance, support at the border, as well as a clear legal status for Ukrainians in the EU. The measures also allow national authorities to manage the influx of people and reduce the immediate impact on their asylum systems. According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by February 2023, more than 4.8 million refugees from Ukraine had registered for temporary protection or similar national protection schemes in Europe. This is a higher number than all the inhabitants of the city of Rome in Italy, for example. Europeans’ readiness to welcome Ukrainians can be seen as one way of showing resistance to Putin’s tactics.
Interactive infographic: Protecting irregular migrant children

Irregular migration

In addition to asylum-seekers, the migratory flows include irregular migrants – those trying to escape poverty in their country or to find better prospects for the future. After a relative fall in the number of people trying to cross the EU’s external borders irregularly in recent years, the numbers began to climb again after 2021. According to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, about 330 000 irregular entries were detected at the EU’s external borders in 2022, the highest number since 2016.

Attempts to enter the EU irregularly by sea often have tragic consequences for migrants. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 26 085 people have gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014. In 2022, on average five people died per day trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. Thanks to EU operations, between 2015 and 2022, 632 455 people were rescued in the Mediterranean and western African routes. Moreover, civil society search and rescue (SAR) vessels have rescued a significant number of migrants in distress at sea, despite experiencing difficulties in disembarking the migrants in safe ports.

The mixed flows of asylum-seekers and irregular migrants also complicate border authorities’ work: while asylum-seekers must be allowed entry at the borders to seek protection, irregular migrants who do not have the right to enter and stay in the EU should be returned to their country of origin or transit. According to Eurostat, only about one third of the people who receive a return decision leave the EU. Of the 4 million people ordered to leave in 2013‑2021, only 1.3 million left.

The EU has taken resolute steps to strengthen its external borders. In 2019, the European Border and Coast Guard was established, and the architecture of EU-wide information systems for border management and security was revised and expanded. Efforts to develop European integrated border management and to reform the Schengen rules are ongoing.

Ongoing asylum and migration reform

After the arrival of unprecedented numbers of asylum-seekers and irregular migrants in the EU in 2015‑2016, the European Commission proposed a package of reforms to the Common European Asylum System. In June 2018, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU reached broad agreement on several proposals. However, EU governments did not all agree and the reform stalled due to continued disagreement on how to apply the principle of solidarity in practice and to share asylum responsibilities fairly. In September 2020, the European Commission sought to revive the reform by putting forward a new pact on migration and asylum offering a comprehensive approach aimed at strengthening and integrating key EU policies on migration, asylum and border management. The pact builds on and amends the previous reform proposals. Discussions are still ongoing. The European Parliament has continued to call for the respect of the principle of non-refoulement, condemning reports of pushbacks at different EU borders, and insisting on the need to guarantee decent reception conditions for people seeking international protection in the EU. In September 2022, the European Parliament and the forthcoming rotating presidencies of the Council agreed on a joint roadmap to adopt the pending legislative proposals on asylum and migration management by February 2024.

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