The Cable

Study: About 1 Million Refugees Left in Limbo in Europe Through 2016

Half of Europe’s asylum seekers in the last two years were still awaiting word on whether they could stay at the end of 2016.

Refugees protest outside the Asylum Service in Athens on September 19, 2017, to call for immediate reunifications with their families in Germany.
Refugees , living in different camps  around Athens demanded to travel at the legally provided deadline of six month. Germany has limited the families reunifications to 70  per month.  / AFP PHOTO / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI        (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Refugees protest outside the Asylum Service in Athens on September 19, 2017, to call for immediate reunifications with their families in Germany. Refugees , living in different camps around Athens demanded to travel at the legally provided deadline of six month. Germany has limited the families reunifications to 70 per month. / AFP PHOTO / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Half of the 2.2 million people who sought asylum in Europe in the biggest refugee wave since World War II were in legal limbo at the end of last year, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.

The fate of more than 1 million refugees has echoes beyond just humanitarian concerns: Germany goes to the polls this weekend, with the far-right, xenophobic party Alternative for Germany (AfD) poised to become the country’s third-biggest political formation — with potential ripple effects on the rest of Europe’s approach to a flood of unwanted immigrants.

Relying on data collected by Eurostat, the European statistical agency, Pew on Wednesday published new details on the status of those seeking asylum in 2015 and 2016 in the European Union, Norway, and Switzerland.

About 40 percent of the 2-plus million seeking asylum in Europe have been told they could stay. And the rest? Pew estimates that about half are still in legal limbo — leaving them waiting in government-operated facilities, where they have access to food and medical care. A fraction, on the other hand, either returned home or left Europe.

Most European countries keep refugees out of the labor market for at least the first few months of the application process. The perception that asylum seekers live off the state’s generosity plays an important role in the anti-refugee backlash, said Elzbieta Gozdziak, a research professor at Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of International Migration.

Not every arrival faces the same hurdles. For Syrian applicants, fast-track processing in Germany meant they could get their papers within an average of three months; overall, only 20 percent of Syrian asylum seekers were left in limbo by the end of last year. That is a sharp contrast to Albanians (89 percent still awaiting final word) and Afghans (77 percent still waiting).

Germany played a central role in European refugee policy in recent years and will likely continue to after this weekend’s elections. Germany admitted about half of Europe’s asylum seekers between 2015 and 2016, and it processed their claims faster than most other countries but also sent more asylum applicants back home than other European countries.

Those conflicting views will come to a head as AfD stands poised to gain seats in the Bundestag. The AfD owes its prominence to the resonance of its anti-refugee, Islamophobic platform, which capitalizes on the resentment some Germans, particularly in eastern Germany, feel toward asylum seekers they perceive as undeserving recipients of government largesse. Today, the AfD has seats in 13 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments.

“A great number of restrictions regarding the intake of refugees have already been put into place in the past couple of years, not least due to the political pressure exerted by the AfD,” said Josefin Graef, a political researcher at the University of Birmingham.

Domestic political gains by the AfD would have an impact on refugee policy beyond Germany’s borders, she said, making a return to a refugee-welcoming Europe much less likely and potentially emboldening other anti-immigrant regimes, from Hungary to Poland. The EU’s asylum policies, she said, are “already shaped by measures that promote ‘fortress Europe’ — returning refugees to camps in Libya and making it increasingly difficult for NGOs to save people from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.”

Photo credit: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

Martin de Bourmont is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. He previously worked as a reporter for the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and as a reporting intern for the New York Times in Paris. @MBourmont

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