Workshop Report

The European Union’s 28 member nations received over 1.2 million applications for asylum in 2015, including a million in Germany and 160,000 in Sweden.  The US, by comparison, receives about 75,000 asylum applications a year. Refugees are persons outside their country of citizenship who are unwilling to return because they face persecution at home because of race, sex, religion, political opinion, and membership in a particular social group. Asylum seekers travel to the country in which they seek refuge and explain why they face persecution at home in order to be allowed to stay.

Most refugees and asylum seekers move to neighboring countries, as with Afghanis in Pakistan and Syrians in Turkey, but some travel long distances to seek protection, as with Syrians and Afghanis in Germany. A third of asylum seekers arriving in EU countries in 2015 were Syrians, followed by applicants from Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, and Albania.

There are about four million Syrians outside Syria, half in Turkey. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in September 2015 that Syrians could apply for asylum in Germany even if they passed through safe countries en route, thereby disregarding the Dublin Regulation that requires asylum seekers to apply for refuge in the first safe country they reach, so that a Syrian passing through Greece should apply for asylum there. Many Syrians responded to Germany’s welcome by paying smugglers to move them from Turkey to nearby Greek islands via small boats. They traveled by ferry to Athens, and by bus and train north through the Balkans to Austria and Hungary and to Germany. On September 12, 2015, over 12,000 arrived in Munich.

German states and cities scrambled to register, house and feed, and integrate arriving migrants. As numbers rose, Germany, Sweden, and other governments changed their policies to slow the influx, checking those arriving at their borders to find those unlikely to receive asylum. Governments also announced that those granted asylum would receive only temporary protected status and would not be able to bring family members to join them for several years.

EU leaders are struggling to develop more durable solutions, including a larger Frontex Border Patrol to intervene in “hot spots” to discourage migrant smuggling. However, plans to redistribute 160,000 migrants who arrived in front-line states such as Greece and Italy to other EU member states, thus sharing the burden, are strongly opposed by Eastern European governments, and fewer than 500 have been relocated from Greece and Italy to other EU member states. The EU promised money to African countries and Turkey to improve care for migrants there so that they do not feel compelled to migrate to the EU, and to gain these countries support to prosecute the smugglers who move many migrants into the EU.

The EU’s migration crisis raises many issues, including:

  1. How successful are EU institutions known by the name of the cities in which agreements were forged such as Dublin and Schengen when confronted with mass migrations? Dublin requires asylum applicants to seek protection in the first safe country they reach, while Schengen has one EU member state checking entries of foreigners so that once in Europe, people can travel from France to Germany without border checks.
  2. Europe is the continent of migration, with 10 percent of the world’s people and a third of the world’s international migrants. Many European countries have shrinking populations and labor forces. Should Europe welcome migrants to prevent populations from shrinking? If yes, should European countries select migrants or should migrants select the EU country to which they want to move, as many Syrians did in 2015 when they chose Germany and Sweden rather than Greece, Hungary, or Austria?
  3. What happens next? The EU confronted several challenges in 2015, including dealing with Russian intervention in Ukraine and the Greek debt crisis. Is the answer ever-closer-union, meaning that EU nation states give up more power to Brussels, or more subsidiarity, meaning that nation states retain sovereignty over migration?

Philip Martin (UCD) is a labor and immigration economist. Beverly Crawford (UCB) is co-director of the Institute for European Studies and an expert on Germany who has spent time with Syrian refugees in Turkey in 2015. Michael Teitelbaum (Harvard) is a demographer who has served on several US commissions examining the effects of immigration reforms and migration and development.

Martin emphasized that Europe is the continent of migration and social welfare, with 10 percent of the world’s people, a third of the world’s international migrants, half of global social welfare spending, and the leading supporter of human rights. The EU has power over trade and monetary policy, but each EU country decides how many foreigners can enter and what they do inside the country. Net migration to EU member states has been about 600,000 a year, versus a million a year to the US, with half going to Germany and the UK. Most of Europe’s migrants are joining family members, as in the US.

Dublin is an EU regulation that, inter alia, requires foreigners seeking asylum in an EU member state to apply in the first safe country that they reach, and Schengen is an agreement to abolish border checks between most EU member states. Germany ignored Dublin when announcing that Syrians who transited Greece, the Balkans, and Austria could apply for asylum in Germany, and many EU countries introduced border checks in Fall 2015 (Schengen permits re-establishment of border checks for six months in emergency situations).

Many European leaders assert that a shrinking Europe needs migrants to stabilize populations  and labor forces. European leaders would like to select highly skilled migrants rather than to have foreigners make their way to Europe and apply for asylum. Efforts to attract highly skilled migrants to Europe and to allow foreign students who graduate from European universities to stay and work have so far attracted few desired migrants.

Instead, Africans, Arabs, and Asians have been making their way to Europe in increasing numbers. In 2013 and 2014, most migrants crossed the Mediterranean from Libya to southern Italian islands such as Lampedusa, and thousands drowned as overcrowded boats sank. Italy and the EU mounted rescue efforts, encouraging some smugglers to put migrants in unseaworthy boats with a phone to call for help as soon as they left Libya, an example of a moral hazard, an humanitarian policy that encouraged migrants to undertake risky journeys and fueled smuggling.

The Syrian civil war displaced 8-9 million of the pre-war population of about 22 million, including four million who moved to neighboring Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Most of the Syrians arriving in Europe in 2015 were in Turkey, and large numbers turned to smugglers to transport them to Greek islands that are 10-15 miles from the Turkish coast. Syrians were joined by Afghanis and Iraqis as well as citizens of Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia and other Balkan countries, including some non-Syrians who purchased Syrian passports to improve their chances of gaining asylum.

Teitelbaum reviewed global demographics: 5/6 of the world’s people, and all global population growth, are in developing countries. The 1951 refugee convention was adopted after WWII, when some people perished because they were refused asylum. It obliges governments not to refoul or return persons facing persecution at home to their countries of citizenship. A UN agency, UNHCR, determines whether persons outside their country are refugees, and in 2015 reported 14 million refugees and two million asylum seekers, plus five million Palestinians. Another 34 million people were displaced inside their countries of origin, so that 60 million people were “of concern” to UNHCR.

Teitelbaum emphasized that, with so many people seeking safety and opportunity, even small policy shifts can encourage many (more) people to seek refuge. When Merkel announced that all Syrians would be allowed to apply for asylum in Germany, she likely encouraged more Syrians in Turkey to take risky boat trips to Greek islands.

Europe is in a delicate position on refugees. As the place of two world wars in the first half of the 20th century, a primary purpose of the EU is to ensure peace and promote prosperity. The EU has done both, and taken the lead in using “soft power” including the prospect of entry into the EU to effectuate democratic changes from Portugal and Spain to Eastern Europe. The EU is the major funder of human rights groups that aim to protect migrants, and EU institutions such as the Court of Justice ensure that EU member states treat asylum seekers fairly.

Teitelbaum noted that EU leaders who welcome migrants may get more than they expected. US experience with the 1980 Mariel boatlift of Cubans and the 2012 DACA program arguably increased migration, as did Europe’s 2015 welcome to Syrians. However, fears of out-of-control migration, combined with fears of terrorism, can fuel populist parties and topple mainstream governments. Humanitarian protection is cheaper near their countries of origin, but industrial countries have been reluctant to provide sufficient support for front-line governments such as Turkey. It should be recognized that opening doors to asylum seekers also fuels the smuggling trade, since many migrants are willing to pay smugglers.

Teitelbaum concluded that the EU will have to revise its migration policies and institutions, which did not work as anticipated in 2015. In doing so, EU leaders will have to walk a tightrope between humanitarian impulses and demographic realities.

Crawford, who spent time in 2015 with Syrians in Turkey, emphasized that the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 and attacks by migrants on women in Cologne in December 2015 changed European attitudes toward migrants.  She began with the plight of Syrians, who face death at home, in refugee camps, or en route to Europe. The EU has generous asylum policies, but EU governments normally make it hard for foreigners to enter and receive protection. Migrants cannot fly to Europe and seek protection because most governments require visas and proof that the migrant will not overstay; airlines are fined if they carry people without proper documents.

Germany took the lead in welcoming Syrians and, when more arrived than expected, turned to the EU to develop a system for allocating asylum seekers among EU member states. Eastern European countries resisted, arguing that Germany created the problem of too many asylum seekers with its welcome, and that Germany should bear the consequences alone rather than have other EU member states share them The German approach of transforming domestic decisions into EU-wide decisions may not work with refugees as it did with energy conservation and labor market reforms.

Are the million asylum seekers arriving in Europe in 2015 a benefit or burden? Optimists argue that migrants should be welcomed as fresh blood for an aging continent, and that they will contribute to economic growth if integrated successfully. Pessimists note that many migrants do not speak the language of the host country and have few skills, and Muslims who do not abide by the secular norms of most European countries may fuel tensions.

What will EU leaders do in 2016? Crawford believes that EU countries can integrate the migrants who arrived in 2015 successfully given their past experience integrating large numbers of migrants, as after WWII and more recently guest workers and their descendants. She acknowledges that integration will not be easy, especially after the Paris and Cologne attacks, and argues that the EU needs to develop a unified EU response to migration and asylum.


  1. Dublin (1990) and Schengen (1985) were regulations adopted to create a US of Europe with similar standards among member states and to achieve economic efficiency with free movement. When tested by mass migration, they failed. Is the answer to move more power upward from nation states to the EU, as in the US where immigration policy and interstate commerce are federal responsibilities? What if EU member states reject EU migration decisions, as some US governors have tried to reject Syrian refugees?
  2. The 14 million refugees are six percent of the world’s 250 million international migrants, that is, most international migrants are workers, not refugees. Those who travel by sea to seek asylum are a special concern in the US (Cuba and Haiti), Australia (Middle Easterners via Indonesia), and Europe (from Libya and Turkey), since migrants usually pay smugglers for passage. What is the proper balance between rescuing migrants and being tough on boat arrivals, as when the US intercepted Haitians at sea and sent them to Guantanamo to determine if they were refugees, or Australia intercepted Sri Lankans and others and sent them to Nauru and other Pacific Islands?
  3. What is the best way to integrate low-skilled migrants? The US has flexible labor markets, 11 million unauthorized foreigners, and a relatively thin social welfare system, so that especially foreign-born men have very high labor force participation rates. Europe has more rigid labor markets, fewer unauthorized, and more welfare, with fewer migrants in the labor force and employed. Which is best—get newcomers into jobs quickly or give them language training etc so that when they do seek work, they can get “good jobs?”