Is it time for a public referendum on the future of EU immigration and asylum policy?


Picture of Solon Ardittis
Solon Ardittis

Solon Ardittis is Director of Eurasylum, Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) and co-editor of “Migration Policy Practice”

The Refugee Welcome Index 2016 that was published by Amnesty International a couple of weeks ago has produced some startling results. Based on a survey of more than 27,000 people in 27 countries across all continents, the Index measured citizens’ willingness to let refugees live in their countries, towns, neighbourhoods and homes. According to this survey, China, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia currently rank as the five most refugee welcoming nations. However, with the exception of Germany, this ranking does not reflect by any measure the numbers of refugees that are actually hosted in these countries.

Based on UNHCR’s statistics, the number of refugees residing in China currently amounts to only 0.02% of the country’s population. The corresponding ratios are of 0.2% in the United Kingdom, 0.4% in Canada and 0.15% in Australia. These figures must be compared with those depicting the situation in the host countries with the largest numbers of refugees worldwide. The refugee and national population ratios currently amount to some 27% in Lebanon, 10% in Jordan and 3.3% in Turkey,

So, what do the findings of the Refugee Welcome Index tell us?
Two non-mutually exclusive hypotheses can probably be put forward.

The first is that there might be a causal relationship between the number of refugees hosted in a country and the propensity of its national population to express solidarity and a welcoming attitude towards them. In other words, the lower the number of refugees hosted in a country, and the less acute the effects on society and national social systems this has, the higher the tendency of citizens to support a more hospitable stance towards refugees.

There might be a causal relationship between the number of refugees hosted in a country and the propensity of its national population to express solidarity

The second hypothesis is that there might currently be a dichotomy between the central governments’ restrictive immigration and asylum policies, and the policy preferences of a potentially large proportion of local authorities and citizens in Europe. An illustration of this was provided at the beginning of the migrant crisis in 2015, when a large segment of the EU’s national population and local authorities took a range of initiatives to increase the number of migrants and asylum seekers being accepted by central governments. This includes, for example over 600 French local authorities offering to host migrants and refugees from Syria; over 11,000 Icelanders offering to welcome refugees in their homes (when the Icelandic government had only agreed to accept 50 of them); both Madrid and Barcelona establishing a database of European cities interested in welcoming refugees; and the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) calling on all its members in more than 40 countries to express interest in receiving refugees.

While it is of course likely that public opinion in Europe might have largely evolved since the beginning of the EU migrant crisis, especially since the upsurge of terrorist threats and attacks in a number of member states, the time has come to consult EU citizens more widely on the future of EU immigration and asylum policy. Whether through a referendum or through less cumbersome and politically charged polling methods, consulting the EU population on clearly formulated and dispassionate policy choices in the field of migration and asylum and following on from balanced and informed debates on the realities of current migration dynamics, would strengthen the legitimacy of the EU’s and the member states’ current policies in this area. The outcome of such public consultations might for example result in a majority of European citizens favouring an increase in the number of asylum seekers being resettled and relocated under the EU’s existing Resettlement and Relocation programmes. To date, these two programmes have only generated 15% and less than 1% of pledges respectively. Public consultations might on the contrary comfort the member states’ current reluctance to fulfil their commitments under these two programmes, as well as other restrictive policy decisions in the field of immigration and asylum.

The time has come to consult EU citizens more widely on the future of EU immigration and asylum policy

While it would be very difficult to predict the outcome of any such consultations, these would no doubt contribute to boosting or recasting current approaches to immigration and asylum policy in Europe. They would further establish, once and for all, the relative weight and level of endorsement of views and arguments promoted by extremist political parties in Europe. Finally, they would strengthen the EU’s negotiating position in UN and other international fora where issues of global responsibility-sharing in the field of immigration and asylum, including issues of global resettlement, are discussed.

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