Ideas on Europe

Admitting asylum-seekers or paying other countries to do so ?

Admitting asylum-seekers or paying other countries to do so ?

For our weekly ‘Ideas on Europe’ editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Pierre Van Wolleghem, Post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bergen, in Norway.

You are the executive scientific coordinator of a large research project named ‘PROTECT’, on the future of international refugee protection. A very pressing issue !

That’s right: in 2020, the number of people fleeing wars, violence, persecution, and human rights violations rose to nearly 83 million people. A large number of these find refuge, oftentimes for mere geographical reasons, in developing countries, which, for the most part, lack the means to accommodate and help them.

In a world order made up of states, guaranteeing people’s right to seek protection is necessarily a collective effort: states should act in concert to ensure human rights are safeguarded. And citizens agree with this principle. My colleagues Cornelius Cappelen, Hakan Sicakkan, and I asked citizens from 26 different countries (21 European ones, plus Canada, the US, Turkey, Mexico and South Africa) whether they agreed with the statement that all countries should collaborate to protect the world’s refugees. And two thirds of them responded ‘yes’!

But that requires solidarity between states. How exactly can states collaborate on refugee matters?

Once we know that public opinion generally supports concerted efforts to protect people in need of protection, we should ask how they think this collaboration should take place.

Fundamentally, there are two broad mechanisms for international responsibility-sharing in refugee matters: a country can either provide financial help to ensure that other countries can guarantee basic rights and decent living conditions for refugees, or else admit more asylum seekers from countries already hosting comparatively large numbers of them.

The choice for one mechanism or the other is not an easy one. As we know, the relocation of asylum seekers has been at the heart of fierce controversies over the last decade. The impossibility to reform the EU’s Dublin system—which attributes disproportionate responsibility to the country which has its border crossed first—is a case in point!

In a number of countries, migration issues have become central in electoral competitions: a topic on which candidates gain or lose votes, and perhaps even entire elections. Therefore, willingly admitting more asylum seekers is controversial and risky for politicians; probably more so than paying out a financial contribution, unless it is deemed too costly.

And what kind of trade-off are citizens willing to make when it comes to choosing between these two options ?

In our survey, we asked respondents whether they would be willing to accept a hundred asylum seekers in their country or if they would rather prefer their government pay another to accept them.

We actually conducted an interesting experiment: in asking what respondents prefer, we varied the amount their country would have to pay per asylum seeker in order to have another state accepting them. In this way, we estimate the effect of the cost of financial contributions. Respondents are randomly distributed into three groups: the first group is presented with a financial contribution of €5,000 per asylum seeker, the second one with a contribution of €50,000, and the third one with a contribution of €250,000.

Very clever idea ! And what comes out of it?

On the whole, a sizable majority of the respondents would opt for accepting asylum seekers in their countries rather than paying another country to accept them, irrespective of the contribution’s amount.

However, the higher the amount, the more inclined people are to accept the asylum seekers. For instance, even when respondents are presented with the choice of either accepting the asylum seekers or paying a relatively low financial contribution of €5,000 to the country that accepts them, 55.2% would rather accept them (while, logically, 44.8% of them would prefer to pay)

What do you expect decision-makers to do?

We hope they’ll look at our findings to start with! Our study first shows that most people support international collaboration to protect the world’s refugees. And it also shows that they prefer admitting more asylum seekers over paying other countries a financial contribution. These are very relevant findings for policymakers! While states are usually more willing to curb asylum flows rather than organise solidarity, we provide compelling evidence of the sustainability of responsibility-sharing through relocation programmes. Both the UN’s Global Compact for Refugees and the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum call for more international collaboration on protection. The big question is: will states listen to the public’s preferences and better protect the world’s refugees?

Big question indeed. Many thanks for sharing these findings from the PROTECT research project, which will hold its final conference, which will hold its concluding conference in Brussels next month, from 6 to 8 March. I recall you are the executive scientific coordinator of this project, based at the University of Bergen, in Norway.

Interview by Rune Mahieu.