The last weeks of January have seen a number of EU institutions raise the alarm over illegal migration and the exploitation of a strained asylum system. This comes as the head of Frontex told MEPs on Monday, January 30th, that the agency, responsible for the border control of the EU Schengen area, will require €100 million for “return-related activities” this year. The subject will be a point of focus for the EU leaders who are due to gather for a special European Council meeting on February 9-10th.
An informal meeting of home and justice ministers was held in Stockholm on Thursday, January 26th, as part of the Swedish Presidency of the European Council. The principal area stressed was the need for a better system to return migrants and illegitimate asylum claimants. The Commission has pointed out that in 2022, there were 923,911 asylum requests in the EU, a 46.5% increase since 2021. This figure excludes the over four million Ukrainian refugees who apply through a separate proceeding known as the Temporary Protection Directive.
While the largest number of applicants are from Syria, substantial numbers are arriving from countries considered safe, in particular from countries currently applying for EU membership, such as Turkey, Albania, and Georgia. Of the 630,890 asylum applicants in 2021, EU nations decided to return 340,500, but of these, only 21% were sent back to their countries of origin.
Europe’s asylum and immigration system may be stretched to breaking point. Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johannson has said that over 60% of current applications are now bound to be rejected. Speaking at the Stockholm meeting, she said,
We have three times more asylum applications than irregular arrivals and these are overloading the reception capacities.
Data recently released by Frontex, which stated that in 2022, there were 330,000 illegal crossings, corroborates that asylum applications are at their highest levels since 2016.
The meeting also discussed a need to restrict visas for countries that refused to comply with returns. “Should intensified political and diplomatic efforts not produce the desired results, member states call on the [European] Commission to come back to the [European] Council with proposals on visa restrictions,” Maria Malmer Stenergard, the Swedish migration minister, said at the meeting.
This comes as part of a gradual U-turn on migration and refugee policy by the EU. Since the initial responses of 2015, which sought to welcome the world, the numerous failings of this policy have become apparent to European leadership. The exploitation of refugee and asylum status by economic migrants is now creating an increasingly unavoidable problem for the institutions. The growing pressure of nationalist and conservative parties in EU countries is likewise forcing their hands.
There has been speculation that the Swedish Presidency would come under pressure from the Sweden Democrats (SD). This has been fuelled further by statements from SD politicians that there are “some appendices” to their political agreement with the current centre-right government, which according to Swedish media reports gives them extensive influence on Sweden’s position in EU affairs. However, incidents such as Belarus’ 2021 weaponization of migrants have already forced officials to acknowledge the critical flaws in the old approach, and as open borders are increasingly unpopular across Europe, this change in policy looks set to continue.