The publication of year-end statistics on asylum and migration in 2022 is creating something of a panic – and like most migration panics it’s largely manufactured for political ends.

Some key figures are higher than in 2020 and 2021. The headline is that there were over 900,000 asylum applications in the EU and associated countries last year and some 330,000 irregular crossings of the EU’s external border. In addition, emphasis is put on the increasing number of asylum applications and crossings of people from countries where protection rates are low.

The general alarmism is being used to generate momentum in the run-up to next week’s European Council which will consider ideas proposed by the Sweden Democrats, oh, sorry, the Swedish Presidency of the EU, and comes amid a strong push from hard-line Member States to (re)discuss old classics, the Great Border Wall of the EU and external processing of asylum applications. At the same time, there is a defensive movement from the Commission, not so much to dampen the panic, but rather to reassure the Member States that everything necessary is already being done.

The leaked draft Conclusions of the meeting suggest that the Commission is prevailing, nonetheless, the rhetoric remains borderline hysterical. Closer examination and contextualisation of the figures shows little reason for panic.

First, during the pandemic, restrictions meant that people in need of protection, along with others, were not able to travel to safety. Given that there are record numbers of people displaced globally, it is normal that there would be an increase when restrictions were eased. Even with the Ukraine war, the percentage of globally displaced in the EU is very low compared to other regions, which are less able to manage. In addition, many European countries used the pandemic years to tackle backlogs which improves their starting position when people arrive. The numbers are manageable.

Second, even for those who want to prevent refugees arriving, walls and fences are not the answer. Most people who applied for asylum did not cross the borders “irregularly” – they arrived on a visa. This in itself is a good thing not a cause for alarm. It means that the majority of asylum applicants had a safe route into Europe (of course they may have experienced dangerous journeys at an earlier point, along with violence and persecution in countries of origin). It does mean fewer people subject to the horrendously traumatic experience of trying to enter at Europe’s borders, and, at the very least, indicates that the focus should switch away from borders.

Third, most people arriving are entitled to protection. Despite the constant misrepresentations, the protection rate for people seeking sanctuary in Europe remains high, with 40% receiving refugee status or subsidiary protection at first instance, and a further 10% or so being granted protection statuses under national law. More people then receive a protection status at second instance, following an appeal or review, with the average at around one third of the cases appealed (although figures are patchy across Europe). It should also be noted that (mis)use of inadmissibility procedures means that a considerable number of people with protection needs will not have an in-merits assessment of their case and others will not be able to access an effective remedy. Nonetheless, for many the way forward should be protection and integration. While return and deportation remain the hardy perennial of asylum policy, and will be a focus of discussions next week as at last week’s JHA Council, for most people this will not be their path.

Despite the long list of nationalities that are being bandied around in the generalised scaremongering (Egyptians – horror! Africans! God help us), the two main countries of origin of people seeking protection in Europe are Syria and Afghanistan, as has largely been the case for 10 years. Two countries experiencing violence, war, persecution, gross violations of human rights, crimes against humanity, and so on.

Many of the other countries that are discussed are far from stable and they are not “safe” in any sense of the word – most cannot and are not considered safe countries of origin or safe third countries for legal purposes (DR Congo anyone?) and for all the main countries of origin of people arriving, there are groups of people who will face persecution. It cannot thus be excluded that people arriving from these countries have protection needs – that is the point of individual assessment. All of that to say that there is not a pending “migration crisis” and huge increase in “undeserving” people arriving. Globally, there are lots of people with protection needs; some of them arrive in Europe. For those with economic motivation, then opening or reinstating labour migration routes remains a better option than panic.

Fourth, figures need to be examined and contextualised. Frontex figures refer to border crossings not the number of people arriving irregularly. As some people have to cross more than one EU border the number of people is quite a bit lower than the headline figure. Then, “one million asylum applications” creates headlines but requires contextualising. That is 900,000 arriving in an area of population +450 million (taking EU and associated countries), with a highly regulated asylum policy, considerable state resources, population decline and major labour shortages.

Finally, those attempting to generate hysteria seem to be overlooking the biggest story of last year: that the EU was able to manage the displacement of 8 million people from Ukraine. While that has been hugely challenging, the EU’s response has largely been achieved without panic. Why should 300,000 people crossing borders create panic when the arrivals of millions does not?

The value of crisis

The explanation lies in the use that is made of crises. The extremists like panic because it creates public fear, however there are more reasonable and even progressive and technocrat forces in EU policy-making that try to manipulate crises, for instance to generate the sense of urgency required for reforms to pass. In the EU, policy-making at 27 with at least three being more or less Eurosceptic at any point in time, is extremely complex, with the risk of blocking minorities (sometimes of one) proliferating. There is a well-established theory in EU studies that the EU advances when there is a crisis.

While there is some evidence for this, it is a logical fallacy to conclude it is necessary to have a crisis for there to be development. It doesn’t follow that crises should be deliberately stoked in order to take things forward. Still more questionable is the idea that whatever policy and law results from a crisis goes in the right direction. On asylum and migration the opposite tends to be true – policy-making in panic mode feeds an approach based on unfounded fears rather than on needs, interests, resource considerations or legal obligations.

All this doesn’t mean that things are fine – far from it: there are major problems in asylum systems across Europe, as ECRE documents, and the situation in relation to displacement from Ukraine is highly challenging and unpredictable. It is just to argue that the last thing needed is panic and crisis. As so often, that serves as an excuse for rolling out the usual series of harsh, sometimes inhumane, frequently illegal, and generally totally futile externalising measures. Calm heads would keep on with the more productive work of resourcing and managing protection and integration in Europe.

Editorial:Catherine Woollard, Director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)