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Why a European Asylum Agency should do the job

Friedrich Heinemann / Feb 2016

A line of Syrian refugees crossing the border of Hungary and Austria. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The experiences of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe highlight the failures of the current model of asylum policies in the EU. Although the standards for the admission of refugees have been harmonised on paper there are still drastic differences between the practices implemented by individual states. As a result, the costs of processing an asylum application within the EU, including providing accommodation and maintenance, vary between a few hundred euros and five-figure sums per refugee.

The current system creates substantial incentives for free-riding and a “race to the bottom” of acceptance standards. The more miserable the standards the lower the costs a member state faces. The effects are drastic imbalances of actual refugee acceptance numbers and acceptance capacities: If acceptance capacity of a country is calculated on the grounds of its size, its GDP, as well as the level of unemployment, these discrepancies become obvious: whilst, for example, Germany and Sweden are accepting two to three times more than their calculated quota, EU member states in Eastern Europe are accepting less than five per cent of the quota of asylum seekers which they should be. Some countries, including Slovenia and Slovakia, are fulfilling less than one per cent of their intake quota.

A further disadvantage of the current division of labour between the EU and member states is that costs are too high because economies of scale and specialization are not realized. Single countries are currently overburdened with large refugee numbers with the consequence of administrative bottlenecks and a very long duration of asylum applications until they are decided. Given this diagnosis, more Europe in asylum policies is the right answer. However, the question is which model of a more European approach is most promising.

Countries like Germany currently favour a quota system. A quota system appears to be a straightforward solution for the problem of imbalances. However, a closer look and the disappointing experiences of first attempts along these lines reveal that a quota system cannot keep its promise. A pure quota system would lead to the relocation of many hundreds of thousands people against their will. For 2015, more than 900,000 asylum seekers would have to be relocated, which would probably give rise to prohibitive political and budgetary costs.

A first step towards really integrating the EU level into the policy field is financing the national costs for asylum seekers from the EU budget. Having the EU fully finance the asylum process while its member states retain responsibility for service provision, we calculate that the EU budget would need to be augmented by roughly €30 billion each year (or by some 20 percent), based on the 2015 numbers of asylum seekers. This would be a step forward in terms of equal burden sharing. However, still crucial problems would remain: incentives of member states to deter refugees would not vanish given the non-monetary costs of large immigration and the later integration costs. Moreover, a European refinancing of national activities would not allow reaping European economies of scale.

Hence, the most promising approach would be to go one step further and have the EU assume responsibility for both financing and administering asylum processes in its member states through the establishment of a European Asylum Agency (EAA) financed from the EU budget. The EAA would be responsible for implementing a fully harmonized asylum procedure across all 28 EU countries. Furthermore, the agency would provide the reception of refugees including all services (accommodation, health, budgetary procedure etc.) until the asylum decision is taken.

In other words, the EAA would provide uniform acceptance conditions across Europe. Having a European service provision by a European Asylum Agency would offer potential economies of scale and advantages in terms of speed and expertise that would significantly reduce the costs of asylum procedures. In our study we estimate a savings potential of between €5–12 billion annually. Moreover, the EAA providing a level playing field of hosting conditions, asylum procedures, recognition rates and regionally balanced EU reception facilities would eliminate the current incentives for refugees to concentrate on a few countries. On the side of refugees, incentives would work towards an even distribution. They would no longer be able to “shop around” for the best acceptance conditions since they would be the same everywhere. And reception services and an asylum procedure would only be available in the place which is assigned to the individual refugee by the EAA.

Without a doubt, the political obstacles to introducing a more European approach are huge because of narrow national self-interests. With a broad political and economic perspective, however, all EU member countries will suffer from unpredictable losses and integration risks if national egoism prevails in asylum policies and endanger the achievements of European integration. In this sense, there should be incentives for all EU member states to advance towards truly European asylum policies.

Friedrich Heinemann

Friedrich Heinemann

February 2016

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