In autumn last year Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy from Syria, drowned in the Mediterranean. His body washed up on the Turkish coast on 2 September. A photograph of the boy, lying lifeless and face down on the beach near Bodrum, immediately went viral.
The picture told Europe that it could no longer shield itself from the refugee crisis. In 2015, more than a million migrants reached the EU via the Mediterranean Sea. Aylan Kurdi and over 3,700 others died or went missing attempting the hazardous journey. Another 2,510 died or went missing in the first five months of 2016, against 1,855 for the same period last year.
Overall, 1.25 million people applied for asylum in the 28 EU member states in 2015: more than double the asylum applications recorded the previous year. In raw numbers it is easily the biggest refugee crisis that Europe has experienced since the Second World War. Less than a quarter of those applications – just under 300,000 – were successful in 2015, though it can take years to process many of the claims.
The political impact of the refugee surge has been huge. Yet the EU’s intake is very small in comparison with that of some relatively poor countries. An estimated one million refugees displaced by the war in Syria are now living in Europe, spread out over a continent of 750 million people. Meanwhile, Lebanon and Jordan, which have a combined population of 11 million, are hosting two million Syrian refugees.
European countries are legally obliged to help refugees who make it to their countries – a legacy of the Second World War. In 1951 the UN’s Refugee Convention laid out the process of claiming and granting asylum. This was followed by the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The most critical aspect of these treaties is the duty of “non-refoulement” – a country can’t return refugees to a nation where they could be at risk. Every single European country, in or out of the EU, is a signatory to both accords.
The EU does impose extra obligations on its members, but these are seldom properly enforced. Last year it agreed to redistribute 160,000 migrants around the continent; so far, only a few thousand have been relocated, and many member states, especially those in eastern Europe, refuse to co-operate. The European Commission is considering introducing fines on non-compliant countries. It is also discussing a revision of the Dublin regulation, under which members can deport asylum-seekers to the nation through which they first entered the EU. The UK has used this to deport over 12,000 people since 2003, and is lobbying against reform.
Despite the tabloid scaremongering, there are far fewer asylum applications per head to the UK than to other countries in the EU. Britain received 60 asylum applications per 100,000 people in 2015, well under the EU-wide average of 260. Perhaps more surprisingly, the UK was also far less generous in hosting refugees than Norway and Switzerland, European countries outside the EU. Norway had ten times more asylum applications per head of population than the UK, and Switzerland eight.
In total, net migration to the UK in 2015 was an estimated 333,000; the number of long-term migrants was split almost evenly between EU and non-EU citizens. Of the 531,000 visas issued in the year to March 2016, granted to nationals from beyond the European Economic Area, 271,000 were for reasons of study – either short or long term – and 164,000 for work, of which 97,000 were in high-value or skilled jobs. (The rest came to be with their family or for other reasons.) As many as 407,000 Irish-born individuals live in the UK, according to the 2011 census, and they would have no automatic right to stay here in the event of a Leave vote.
Overall, immigrants are younger and significantly more educated than people born inside the UK. Most studies suggest that migration is a boost to the British economy rather than a drain on it. This implies that much public anger about immigration is a proxy for broader concerns – about housing, unemployment, the health service, a sense of alienation and loss of identity.
We just don’t know precisely how Brexit would affect the UK’s obligations to refugees, as a report from the Migration Observatory at Oxford noted recently. It is also unclear which policies on free movement – and, by implication, refugees – the UK would adopt if it did vote to leave the EU. If we followed the model of Norway, as many in the Leave camp advocate, free movement essentially would be unaffected. Indeed, if the UK left the EU it would cease to be able to use the Dublin regulation to transfer refugees to other European nations.
There is one other consideration: whatever the UK decided to do if it left the EU, the Channel would remain 350 miles long, and still practically impossible to police.