Do applications respond to changes in asylum policies in European countries?

Simone Bertoli, Herbert Brücker, and Jesús Fernández-Huertas Moraga

Regional Science and Urban Economics, Volume 93 (2022), Article number 103771


This paper analyzes whether the distribution of asylum applications across European countries responds to policy changes. 

The authors model the uncertainties faced by asylum seekers including: (a) the probability of obtaining refugee protection; (2) the expected time required to process an asylum application; and (3) the risk of repatriation for asylum seekers whose applications are rejected. The analysis is based on EUROSTAT data on asylum applications to European countries between 2009 and 2017. 

The proportion of asylum applications that are successful (recognition rate) largely reflects conditions in origin countries at a particular time. The expected processing time and the risk of repatriation largely reflects policies in destination countries, including the resources that are allocated to processing pending asylum applications, the extent to which processing of applications from various countries of origin are prioritized (implicitly or explicitly), and the resources allocated to the enforcement of immigration legislation. 

Descriptive statistics: 

  • The number of first-time applications from an origin country to a destination country in a given month ranged from five to 37,000 (from Syrians in Germany in February 2016), with an average of 155 applications across all origin-destination country pairs.  
  • Asylum applications from a given origin country typically face broadly similar recognition rates across destinations. The average recognition rate for first-time applications was 28 percent. Across countries of origin, recognition rates ranged from 2 percent for Macedonian asylum seekers to 78 percent for Eritrean asylum seekers. Across destination countries, recognition rates ranged from 2 percent in Latvia to 69 percent in Malta.  
  • Average time to process an asylum application was 9.5 months. Across origin countries, this ranged from less than 7 months for Syrians, Eritreans, and Serbians to more than 14 months for applicants from the Democratic Republic of Congo. By destination, average processing times ranged from just over 1 month in Portugal to more than 18 months in Ireland. 

Main results: 

  • The share of applications received by a destination country from a specific origin country does not affect the recognition rate for applications from that origin country.  
  • Processing times have a heterogeneous impact on asylum applications depending on the recognition rate and on the repatriation risk. A higher processing time reduces the share of asylum applications received from countries with a high recognition rate, thus reducing the average recognition rate. For countries with low recognition rates, processing times have a negative and significant effect on applications only when the repatriation risk is high. When the repatriation risk is low, however, the effect of the processing time becomes positive. 
  • German policies to speed up the processing of asylum application increased the attractiveness of Germany as a destination for asylum seekers from countries that are heavily affected by violent conflicts and persecution and who can easily substantiate their asylum claims. A reduction in the average processing time in Germany (from 15.7 to 9.4 months), together with an increase in average processing time in other European countries (from 6.7 to 8.9 months), explains 13.5 percent of the increase in asylum applications lodged in Germany, and a 7.9 percent decrease in asylum applications in other European countries. For Syrian refugees, the observed variations in processing times increased applications in Germany by 16 percent and decreased applications in Sweden by 35 percent between 2014 and 2015. 
  • The inclusion of origin countries in lists of safe countries significantly reduced asylum applications in Europe and contributed to faster processing times. When a country is added to the lists of safe countries of origin (making citizens of that country subject to quick and direct denial of asylum), asylum applications are reduced around 11 months after the policy is implemented despite a decrease in processing times and a temporary increase in recognition rates. 

The authors conclude that recognition rates, processing times and risk of repatriation do influence the number of asylum applications received by European countries and their composition by country of origin. Asylum seekers do respond to differentials in recognition rates and processing times, and so asylum policies decided unilaterally in one country affect other destination countries. The authors advocate for coordination of policies across European countries to avoid a race to the bottom in refugee protection standards.