Q&A: Migrants and asylum in the EU

Migrants picked up on a Maltese patrol boat, 12 Oct 13 These migrants were plucked out of the water by a Maltese patrol boat

The arrival of boatloads of poor and desperate migrants in Europe has put pressure on the EU to find a solution.

Hundreds of non-EU migrants have drowned off the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa this month, after fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.

How big is the migration challenge affecting Europe now?

There is no doubt that the Arab Spring has put new migration pressures on Europe, swelling the numbers of people prepared to risk their lives by crossing the Mediterranean in rickety, overcrowded boats.

In 2011 the big challenge was thousands of Tunisians arriving on Lampedusa. Later it was thousands of sub-Saharan Africans fleeing the conflict in Libya. Now it is the wave of Syrians fleeing the vicious civil war in their country.

Italy and Malta have appealed for more help from the EU - not for the first time. Before this summer the focus was more on Greece, because its land border with Turkey had become the biggest crossing point for illegal migrants entering the EU.

The Italian government says 35,085 migrants came ashore in Italy in January-October this year, of whom 73% met the legal criteria for asylum.

Lampedusa is a migrant bottleneck because it is tiny and lies closer to North Africa than to Italy itself. Italy is expanding its reception centres to a 16,000 capacity, from the current 3,000. It had closed temporary camps for migrants from war-torn Libya at the end of 2012, after the defeat of Libyan ruler Col Muammar Gaddafi.

Italy's problems are shared by some of its Mediterranean neighbours. Reception centres in Greece and Malta are overcrowded and under-resourced. Both countries have been criticised by the UN refugee agency UNHCR and human rights groups, who accuse them of violating migrants' rights.

There are plenty of other routes taken by irregular migrants to enter the EU and start a new life. Mainland Greece remains a major transit point - many migrants travel up through the Balkans, hoping to reach northern Europe.

Many illegal migrants go undetected, so there is no overall figure for them. But in 2012 there were 344,928 detections of illegal stay in the EU, according to the EU border agency Frontex. It calls the trend "generally stable".

How does the Mediterranean compare with other entry points?

In 2012 the Eastern Mediterranean route - via Greece - accounted for the most detections of illegal border-crossing. There were 37,214 detections (51% of the total). But in August 2012 the numbers trying to get in that way began to fall after Greece, helped by Frontex police, beefed up security on its land border with Turkey.

The figure for the Central Mediterranean route - via Italy - rose to 10,379 (14% of the total).

Before the Arab Spring the Western Mediterranean route was a big challenge for Spain, as many migrant boats arrived off the Canary Islands, carrying poor sub-Saharan Africans. Since then Spain has tightened up border co-operation with Morocco and has erected fortifications around its North African enclaves - Ceuta and Melilla. In 2012 detections of illegal border-crossing totalled 6,397 on the route to Spain.

People traffickers also smuggle migrants into the EU via Eastern Europe, often hiding in lorries. The numbers entering that way are smaller. Some are victims of sexual exploitation, often from the former Soviet Union. But Germany has also seen a surge in the numbers of Chechens fleeing Russia and claiming asylum.

Numbers recorded using different Mediterranean migration routes

Where do most of the migrants come from?

On the Central Mediterranean route this year the largest numbers have been Syrians and Eritreans, followed by Somalis. War is raging in Somalia and Syria, and Italian officials believe many of the migrants are genuine asylum seekers, fleeing persecution. In the case of Eritrea, it appears many are young men fleeing compulsory military service, which has been likened to slavery. Eritrea is blighted by political repression, human rights groups say.

In 2012 the largest number of asylum applications in the EU came from Afghans - 28,010. The other major countries of origin were Russia (24,285), Syria (21,100), Pakistan (19,685), Serbia (19,060) and Somalia (14,270).

It is important to remember that huge numbers of EU citizens move from one EU country to another freely. They are also described as "migrants", but they are fully protected by EU law, unless they are fugitive criminals. Their status is quite different from that of non-EU migrants. In some EU countries, including the UK, they have become an issue because of pressure on social services and competition for jobs.

Most EU countries are in the Schengen zone, which has made it much easier to cross borders without having to show a passport or other papers.

Origins of asylum applicants in EU - graphic

How is the EU reacting to the current migrant problem?

For years the EU has been struggling to harmonise asylum policy. That is difficult with 28 member states, each with their own police force and judiciary.

More detailed joint rules have been brought in with the Common European Asylum System - but rules are one thing, putting them into practice EU-wide is another challenge.

The Dublin Regulation is a core principle for handling asylum claims in the EU. It says responsibility for examining the claim lies primarily with the member state which played the greatest part in the applicant's entry or residence in the EU. Often that is the first EU country that the migrant reached - but not always, as in many cases migrants want to be reunited with family members, for example in the UK or the Netherlands.

There are tensions in the EU over the Dublin Regulation - Greece complained that it was inundated with applications, as so many migrants arrived in Greece first. Finland and Germany are among several countries that have stopped sending migrants back to Greece.

The EU also has the Eurodac system - a common database of asylum seekers' fingerprints, which can be accessed under strict controls. Police use it to intercept false or multiple claims.

The European Commission has urged EU governments to expand the Mediterranean surveillance operation "from Spain to Cyprus", to prevent more boat tragedies.

Frontex has only a few aircraft and boats off Italy - the agency's entire annual budget is 86m euros (£73m; $118m).

Italy is stepping up its maritime patrols and the EU has agreed to launch a data exchange system in December, called Eurosur, to detect illegal migrant boats faster.

How do migrants get asylum status in the EU?

They have to satisfy the authorities that they are fleeing persecution and would face harm or even death if sent back to their country of origin. International law provides that protection for genuine refugees.

The ban on mass "push-backs" - also known as "non-refoulement" - is an EU principle. In some cases it has not been respected, however. Before the Libya uprising the Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi routinely prevented migrant boats coming ashore, without processing asylum seekers. Greece has been accused of similar actions in the past.

Under EU rules, an asylum seeker has the right to food, first aid and shelter in a reception centre. They should get an individual assessment of their needs. They can apply for asylum after giving fingerprints and being interviewed by a trained case worker. They may be granted asylum by the authorities at "first instance". If unsuccessful they can appeal against the decision in court, and may win.

Asylum seekers are supposed to be granted the right to a job within nine months of arrival.

The European Commission - the EU's executive - says there is still too much variation in the way EU states handle asylum claims. For example, the recognition rate for Sudanese asylum seekers is 2% in Spain, but 68% in Italy, the Commission says.

EU destinations of asylum seekers - graphic

How many asylum applications are successful?

In 2012 there were 335,365 asylum applications in the EU - a rise on 2011. Germany ranked first, handling a quarter of the total applications.

Nearly three-quarters of first instance rulings were negative, so just over a quarter of the applications were successful.

Of the successful ones, 52% got refugee status - granted for those who have fled persecution. The others got "subsidiary protection" - meaning they would not be sent back, as that would put them in danger.

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