What role ‘should’ public attitudes play in asylum and refugees policies in Europe?

What role should public views play in the making of public policies? Should public policy-makers pay attention to what people think and prefer when designing policies and, if so, how? This paper addresses these long-standing questions in the specific context of asylum and refugees policies in high-income democracies, with a focus on Europe. How to regulate asylum and refugee protection has become one of the most politicised policy issues in many countries, and new policies have often been justified by referring to “what the people want.” It is, therefore, important to consider not only what these public views are (e.g. Jeannet et al., 2021) but also what role they should play in actual asylum and refugee policy-making.

The rising importance of asylum and refugee protection in the national politics of many high-income countries stems, at least in part, from the increasing scale of the challenge during the past decade. The global numbers of asylum seekers (estimated at 4.1 million in 2020) and refugees (over 20 million) have doubled since 2010 (UNHCR, 2021). These numbers are not historically unprecedented (White, 2019), and it is important to recognise that the vast majority of the world’s refugees, an estimated 85 percent, are hosted by low- and middle income countries. Nevertheless, many high-income countries have in recent years experienced substantial and largely unanticipated increases in the number of asylum seekers asking for protection. The largest increases have been recorded in Europe where the number of annual first-time asylum claims rose from 338 thousand in 2013 to 1.2 million in both 2015 and 2016 (at the height of Europe’s so-called “refugees crisis”) before declining again to 620 thousand in 2017 and fewer than in 450 thousand in 2020 (Eurostat, 2022). The spike in the number of new asylum seekers in 2015 quickly led to the de-facto collapse of the EU’s common framework for asylum (the “Dublin system”) and a public perception that asylum and refugee protection were mishandled by governing institutions (Connor, 2018) and generally “out of control”. The rising numbers have also increased the salience of asylum and refugee issues among the public and contributed to the rise of anti-immigrant populist parties (Dennison and Geddes, 2019Dennison, 2020). How and under what circumstances different types of exposure to refugees affect voting for right-wing parties has become an active area of research (e.g. Dinas et al., 2019Gessler et al., 2019Steinmayr, 2021Rudolph and Wagner, 2022).

In response to these developments, European and national policymakers have been engaged in highly acrimonious and divisive debates about how to reform asylum and refugee policies. A wide range of new policies has been proposed, and in some countries already implemented, with contrasting implications for opportunities to apply for asylum in Europe; the rights of asylum seekers and recognized refugees such as access to the national welfare state and family reunification; the resettlement of already recognized refugees from first countries of asylum near conflict regions; assistance and cooperation with countries of origin and transit; responsibility-sharing across host countries in Europe; and, more generally, the desirable degree and modes of policy-harmonisation across EU countries (see, for example, Owen, 2020Aleinikoff and Zamore, 2019Hathaway, 2018UNHCR, 2018Lucke et al., 2018Betts and Collier, 2017). Some reform advocates have called for a “paradigm change” in how asylum and refugees protection are regulated in Europe, suggesting new policies that would deviate from some of the existing protection principles and norms set out in the 1951 Geneva Convention (see, for example, Austrian Ministry of Interior and Danish Ministry of Integration, 2018). Calls for paradigm change have grown even louder in 2021, when the withdrawal of US and other international forces from Afghanistan led to a large increase in forced displacement, fuelling political concerns in many European countries about a rapid rise in the number of asylum applications of Afghan citizens. An increasingly common argument is that significant policy changes are needed to make Europe’s policies for refugee protection more aligned with public views and/or to restore the public’s trust in political institutions which, proponents of radical reform often argue, has been fatally undermined by large-scale immigration (e.g. Betts and Collier, 2018).

This is a part of an article published by Martin Ruhs.