The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported in March 2005 that "the number of asylum seekers arriving in industrialized countries fell sharply for the third year in a row in 2004, reaching its lowest level for 16 years."
In the 50 industrialized countries covered by the UNHCR report, the drop in first-time asylum applications from 2003 to 2004 was 22 percent, and the cumulative fall since 2001 amounts to 40 percent. The report is based on figures supplied by governments.
Despite the lower numbers, governments of industrialized countries still face public concern that the asylum system is "out of control." How much of the drop in applications comes from a lower demand for asylum and how much from stringent legislation is not clear.
UNHCR compiled government reports on new asylum applications for 50 industrialized countries since 2001; for 38 of these countries, it was able to present comparable historical statistics going back to 1980. Most countries showed an historic decline from the high levels of the 1990s, some dramatically so.
Comparing the level of new applications in the year 2004 with that in 2000, the decline was 87 percent in Slovenia, 78 percent in the Netherlands, 76 percent in Australia, 74 percent in Denmark, 63 percent in New Zealand and 59 percent in the United Kingdom.
A few countries saw the number of asylum seekers rise in 2004, reaching record levels in Cyprus, Finland, South Korea, Malta, Poland, and the Slovak Republic. Most of these had relatively few asylum applications in the past. In Korea, for example, the total number rose from 90 in 2003 to 150 in 2004. The Slovak Republic, with the highest number of applications among these six, saw a rise from 10,360 in 2003 to 11,350 in 2004.
Although the numbers were small, in some of these cases, especially the new European Union (EU) members, they present a challenge to new and fragile asylum procedures. As a group, the 10 new EU Member States experienced a collective increase year-on-year. As applications in the "old" EU-15 declined from 303,340 to 243,560 (-21 percent), the "new" EU-10 went from 37,360 to 38,920 (+4 percent).
Whereas Europe as a whole (44 countries including countries of the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia) saw asylum applications decline by 21 percent from 2003 to 2004, the United States and Canada recorded a 26 percent decrease, and Australia and New Zealand a 28 percent drop.
Thirty-six industrialized countries provided monthly data to UNHCR which permitted the compilation of data on countries of origin of asylum seekers. Changes in the origins of asylum seekers are telling indicators of the demand-side factors in asylum trends.
From 2003 to 2004, 35 of the 40 main countries of origin showed reductions in the numbers of people leaving to claim asylum in the industrialized countries. But most of the major reductions, more than one-third, were manifest in countries which, for the most part, saw reductions in armed conflict, increasing stability, or changes in government that reduced domestic human rights violations.
Thus, Iraq led the way in declining numbers of asylum seekers, with a 2003-2004 reduction of 61 percent, followed by Indonesia (58 percent), Liberia (44 percent), Somalia (43 percent), Afghanistan (38 percent), Angola (38 percent), and Turkey (35 percent).
Unsurprisingly, the Russian Federation remained the largest source of asylum seekers in 2004 in absolute terms (although the number was down 14 percent on the previous year), with most applicants fleeing from the ongoing war and lawlessness in Chechnya. By a similar logic, the largest increase, both in numbers and proportion (+9 percent), came from an increasingly violent and chaotic Haiti.
With most of the industrialized countries taking steps to limit access to asylum procedures and tighten requirements for qualification, there were few changes in the rank order of major receiving countries.
The United States, the United Kingdom and Germany were the first, second, and third-largest receivers in 2003; each slipped one place the next year as 2003's number four, France, moved into first place in 2004. The next four rankings — Canada, Austria, Sweden, and Belgium — remained unchanged in 2004.
Switzerland moved from 10th place in 2003 to ninth in 2004 as the Netherlands slipped from ninth to 13th. The Slovak Republic moved into 10th place from 15th. In per capita terms, the order was quite different, with smaller countries such as Cyprus, Austria, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland occupying the top ranks.
Restricted Opportunities for Asylum
Even as the number of asylum seekers in the industrialized countries fall to levels last seen in the 1980s, many governments are taking drastic steps to restrict access to their asylum systems. Switzerland, for example, saw one of the steepest declines in asylum applications, at 32.3 percent, from 2003 to 2004. Yet at nearly the same time that the asylum figures were made public, it passed one of the most restrictive asylum laws in Europe.
Visibly different and forcibly idle for long periods, asylum seekers became an easy target of public resentment.
Provisions in the new Swiss legislation will normally exclude from asylum processes people who cannot produce a valid travel document or national identity card — although refugees commonly cannot obtain such documents, or are deprived of them during the course of their flight.
It would also allow Swiss authorities to share data on asylum applicants with the governments of their home countries after an initial rejection, even if a negative decision is under appeal, potentially endangering them and their families back at home. A number of other restrictive measures were part of the legislation — and the one amendment that would have eased restrictions on people permitted to stay for humanitarian reasons was defeated.
Switzerland is only the most recent example of new restrictions on the ability to seek asylum in industrialized countries. Denmark has abandoned the concept of a humanitarian status for people fleeing from war and violent chaos, and will only consider asylum claims on the basis of a narrow and highly individualized interpretation of the Refugee Convention. The governing coalition is reported to be looking for ways to tie development assistance for countries of origin to cooperation in the repatriation of failed asylum seekers.
The United States and Australia continue to intercept would-be asylum seekers at sea, and make it almost impossible for them to be accepted as refugees (although the United States makes some exceptions for intercepted Cubans) in the country which they were trying to access.
Italy has also turned to interception at sea, and has on at least two occasions deported hundreds of people without allowing UNHCR to confirm that they had been adequately screened for refugee claims.
The United Kingdom proposed to the EU summit in 2003 that asylum seekers have their claims processed in transit centers outside the EU, and that refugee protection be provided in designated zones close to their regions of origin. The idea of off-shore processing zones was rejected, and regional protection plans left to individual states to pursue.
In the meantime, domestic legislation in the UK proceeded to increase the capacity for detention of asylum seekers, provided for electronic monitoring, stiffened requirements for documentation, and added new criteria for calling an asylum applicant's credibility into question (including failing to apply for asylum in the first "safe" third country through which he or she travels).
At the time of writing, the U.S. Congress was considering legislation that would severely restrict the grounds on which people could claim asylum and limit the right of appeal in asylum cases. It would also raise the burden of proof by requiring corroborating evidence of a type that is difficult for a refugee to obtain and an almost inhuman degree of consistency in his or her testimony.
The widespread coincidence of lower numbers and increasing restrictions reflects a complex dynamic, with demand-side and supply-side elements.
The lower demand for asylum results from the subsidence of major refugee-producing conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq; the number of asylum seekers moving from these two countries to the industrialized world fell by more than 80 percent in the past three years. But it is also the result of restrictive measures adopted in receiving (or asylum 'supplying') countries that have deflected or discouraged asylum seekers.
Underlying anti-asylum measures in the industrialized countries are two factors: a reaction to the looming crisis of the welfare state confronted with aging populations, and, in Europe, continuing high unemployment rates and slow growth.
Asylum practices in Europe in the recent past (which continue in some countries) put asylum seekers through lengthy and costly procedures while excluding them from the labor market and giving them fairly generous public benefits, making it easy to caricature them as a burden. Visibly different and forcibly idle for long periods, asylum seekers became an easy target of public resentment.
On top of this, relatively few failed asylum seekers were actually removed — often for good reasons, such as continuing violent conflict in their countries of origin, or their own governments' refusal to recognize them and issue travel documents.
A related force for restrictive policies is the political utility of anti-asylum rhetoric and action. In many of the industrialized countries, populist right-wing parties have risen to unprecedented influence and, in some cases, a place in governmental coalitions by emphasizing the costs and inefficiencies of asylum systems. Some have engaged in xenophobic rhetoric, characterizing asylum seekers generally as criminals and cheats.
More important than the direct power of these parties has been the pressure that more centrist parties have felt to co-opt the right-wing agenda by adopting restrictive measures themselves. Some of these have had the desired effect of deterring people with weak or fictitious asylum claims from using the asylum channel. It has been difficult, however, for some governments to draw a line between discouraging misuse of the asylum system and discouraging even proper use of asylum.
Another phenomenon is policy lag, in which governments continue to address problems with stringent measures even after the problems have started to recede, running the risk of over-correction.
The Director of UNHCR's Europe Bureau pointed to the new asylum figures as an indication that governments could now entertain correcting the course of the last several years: "This really should reduce the pressure by politicians, media and the public to make asylum systems more and more restrictive to the point where many genuine refugees have enormous difficulty getting access to Europe, or getting recognized once they are there. In most industrialized countries it should simply not be possible to claim there is a huge asylum crisis anymore."
Grounds for Encouragement
At the same time that asylum applications have been falling, the number of refugees and other "persons of concern" to UNHCR has also dropped steadily for the past three years — by 18 percent in 2003 to 17.1 million. This is the lowest number in a decade.
The decline is due to the repatriation of millions of refugees to Afghanistan, Angola, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, among other newly stabilizing countries, and more than balances new displacements in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As refugees and internally displaced people are able to go home, the potential pool of asylum seekers is drained.
In other words, there are many reasons for people who are disturbed about asylum seeking in industrialized countries to be encouraged: asylum applications are down, refugee numbers are down, and policies designed to protect asylum systems from misuse seem to be effective — although too often they run the risk of undermining international refugee law and turning away people desperately in need of international protection.
It is difficult to say how much of the drop in asylum applications comes from the positive side of the ledger, through conflict resolution and stabilization, and how much from the deterrent effect of harsh legislation.
Regardless of the mix, the drop in numbers presents a clear opportunity for governments to show their citizens that asylum is not a mechanism out of control. They may even take credit for their part in supporting policies that make the Afghanistans of the world safer places to stay and return.