While the COVID-19 pandemic completely overshadowed the issue of migration to Europe in the media, that does not necessarily mean migration slowed down much. Although the number of migrants decreased year-on-year, the report published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Eurostat, and Frontex shows that the number of asylum applications in some EU countries increased.
The key information of the pertinent statistics would probably be that the number of migrants who illegally crossed the EU’s external borders fell by about 13 percent year-on-year in 2020. Instead of migrating from the outside, however, the migration within the continent has become a major problem for some EU countries.
For example, Austria reported even more asylum applications last year than before the pandemic broke out.
The spread of the virus and the subsequent measures have slowed down migration to Europe, but it did not cease. Last year, 124,000 migrants crossed the EU’s external border, and around half a million people applied for asylum. For comparison, in the record year of 2015, there were 1,395,000 applicants and 762,685 the year before. The statistics include the EU countries as well as the United Kingdom, Norway, and Switzerland.
In addition to a year-on-year decline in asylum applications, a different trend has begun to emerge. Most countries are unable to deport rejected asylum seekers, with many of them moving within the EU. A consequence of that has been a decrease in asylum applications in some states and an increase in the number of asylum seekers in other countries.
That is the case in Austria where 13,700 people applied for some form of asylum last year, more than before the pandemic when there were 12,558 applications. Even the otherwise very liberal Austrian Die Presse daily attributed this to the fact that migrants in the country are entitled to more social support than elsewhere in the EU.
“People follow the money,” the newspaper wrote. The evidence of this is also the migration within Austria. When the state of Lower Austria reduced the amount of social support for refugees, more of them relocated to “more generous” Vienna.
In Germany, which was the main destination for migrants at the beginning of the migration crisis, the number of asylum applications decreased, unlike in Austria, but still remains disproportionately high, according to many German politicians. Although Germany carries out more border controls during the pandemic and mobility has generally decreased, 102,000 refugees have applied for “asylum protection” last year. According to current statistics from the German Ministry of the Interior, a quarter of the cases involved applications for children under one year of age already born in Germany.
For comparison, in the whole of 2019, 142,000 applicants sought asylum in Germany. So anyone who expecting the number of asylum applications to fall to a minimum during the pandemic turned out to be wrong.
At the same time, German politicians talk about the so-called secondary migration, which concerns not only the movement between EU countries. It also describes a phenomenon of rejected migrants applying for asylum in other countries or reapplying in the same country, even though the laws do not allow it.
The problem is that only about 40 percent of rejected applicants get deported back to their home countries. The rest travel across borders and try to succeed again with a new identity or even a new “story”.
“We have cases of people who have initiated 18 asylum procedures in 18 countries,” Michael Spindelegger, head of the International Center for Migration (ICMPD), told Kurier.
German asylum organizations estimate that only a third of refugees who have already been denied asylum in Germany have returned to their country.
That is why many EU politicians call for a reform of the EU’s asylum policy so it would prevent both repeated asylum applications and migrants from traveling across the continent when they have already submitted their application.
“Secondary migration is our main problem today,” Mathias Middelberg, a spokesman for the German governing coalition CDU/CSU, told ZDF television.
In Germany, people from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are still the most common asylum seekers. Besides, in the past year, a migration route through the Canary Islands gained traction. According to some analysts, migrants, especially Moroccans and other Africans, do not apply for asylum with the Spanish authorities but immediately head deeper into Europe.
Overall, the development of migration in the pandemic year showed that although the coronavirus might have temporarily slowed down the migration wave, it certainly did not stop it. Once the danger disappears or eases, the number of refugees is likely to increase again. Such a conclusion was reached by the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which conducted a survey among young people from Tunisia and Lebanon, asking them about their willingness to emigrate. About a third of respondents expressed a desire to leave their home country, most of them giving economic reasons. As their destination, they mostly named “West”, especially Europe.