The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

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)
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.

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 a journalist based in Washington. He was formerly an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MBourmont

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.