Caroline O’Doherty.


The migrant crisis and the very different approaches adopted by the 28 EU states

Amid a lack of a unified EU response, states have taken approaches, based on geography, ideology and finances, as outlined by Caroline O’Doherty.

The migrant crisis and the very different approaches adopted by the 28 EU states

The 28 members of the European Union have experienced the migration crisis in very different ways, with the fluke of geography, the ideology of politicians and the practicalities of finances all playing their part.

Those differences and the divisions that stem from them make agreeing a unified response a massive challenge. What follows is a synopsis of the situation in each of the 28.

Figures for refugees (whose status has been determined) and asylum seekers (who are are awaiting decisions on their asylum claims) show the position at the end of 2017, so the true number is somewhat higher.

Those figures do not include all the migrants to the EU in recent years, as there is an undetermined number of undocumented people who have evaded registration procedures or not submitted asylum claims.

Migrants are transferred from the rescue ship Aquarius to Italian Coast Guard boats, which had followed the ship on its voyage to Spain after it was turned away by Italy. Picture: Kenny Karpov
Migrants are transferred from the rescue ship Aquarius to Italian Coast Guard boats, which had followed the ship on its voyage to Spain after it was turned away by Italy. Picture: Kenny Karpov



Population 8.7m, refugees 115,263, asylum seekers 56,304.

At the height of the recent crisis, almost 86,000 asylum applications were made in Austria in one year and 148,200 in total from 2015-2017. Austria was one of the countries that did not comply with the EU’s relocation scheme aimed at redistributing migrants stuck in Italy and Greece.

Current head of the right-wing government, Sebastian Kurz, has called for the formation of an anti-migration “axis of the willing” with Germany and Italy, to push for restrictive borders, EU-wide.

Austria takes over the European presidency next month and has declared a clampdown on migrants and is seeking reform of the Common European Asylum System as a top priority.


Population 9.8m, refugees 5,691, asylum seekers 678.

From the start of the crisis, Hungary made clear the arrivals were not wanted. In 2015, a fence was rapidly erected — and been fortified since — along the borders with Serbia and Croatia, and in 2016 a referendum was held on the EU relocation scheme.

Although the turnout was not sufficient to deem the result valid, prime minister Viktor Orban hailed the 99.8% rejection of the scheme a vindication of his anti-immigrant stance.

Last week, parliament passed laws threatening prison for anyone found assisting an illegal migrant and prohibiting the settlement of any “alien population” in Hungary.

Almost 100,000 arrived at Hungary’s borders in 2015, so the very modest number of refugees and asylum seekers that remain shows the pushback policies were effective.


Population 38m, refugees 12,238, asylum seekers 2,902.

Poland began the year making noises about leaving the EU if subjected to demands to take migrants and, while a hollow threat, the country is firmly opposed to being dictated to on the subject.

Poland refused to take migrants under the EU relocation scheme. It has also been turning away migrants at its eastern borders with Belarus.

Czech Republic:

Population 10.5m, refugees 3,644, asylum seekers 811.

The Czech Republic also objected to the relocation scheme, taking a handful of asylum seekers before refusing to participate further.

Despite being referred to the European Court of Justice for non-compliance, prime minister Andrej Babis is insisting on his country’s right to determine its own immigration policy. While he is firmly in favour of tightening up the EU’s external borders, he is fervently opposed to internal border checks to control movements within the bloc. As a neighbour of Germany, he doesn’t want anything to impede the countries’ valuable trading links.


Population 5.5m, refugees 923, asylum seekers 26.

Slovakia opposed the relocation scheme despite being located too far east of the main migrant route through Europe to attract any influx. Most of the illegal immigrants it receives are from Ukraine and Russia.

Its government is firmly of the opinion that migrants lower living standards for Slovakians and assistance should be given instead in the countries of origin.



Population 60m, refugees 167,335, asylum seekers 186,648.

Hardline Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini refused to accept the migrant rescue ship Aquarius, before backing down and accepting a second ship, only to then impound it. Picture: Andreas Solaro
Hardline Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini refused to accept the migrant rescue ship Aquarius, before backing down and accepting a second ship, only to then impound it. Picture: Andreas Solaro

Italy’s southern shores and islands have long been at the receiving end of migration waves from Africa and patience has been stretched to the limit by the crisis of the last few years.

Almost 10,000 of the asylum claims last year came from unaccompanied children, adding a further layer of complexity and responsibility to the mix.

New right-wing deputy prime minister and interior minister Matteo Salvini set down a marker for the rest of the EU by turning away the Aquarius rescue ship earlier this month and last week refusing another NGO rescue vessel, the Lifeline, permission to dock before finally agreeing to accept it — and impound it.

The combative Salvini has been berating other country leaders for dumping their responsibilities on Italy and arguing unapologetically that accepting ships makes the EU complicit in people trafficking.

Italy’s navy was behind Operation Mare Nostrum which rescued migrants crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy boats up to 2014. It is now the driving force behind Operation Sophia which supports the Libyan coastguard to intercept the boats and push them back before they reach international waters.


Population 10.7m, refugees 38,999, asylum seekers 44,221.

Children play at a makeshift camp near the Greek village of Idomeni in March 2016. Despite the strain on Greece, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has remained moderate. Picture: Louisa Gouliamaki
Children play at a makeshift camp near the Greek village of Idomeni in March 2016. Despite the strain on Greece, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has remained moderate. Picture: Louisa Gouliamaki

Greece has also been at the coalface of the crisis, its land border with Turkey and myriad of Mediterranean islands putting it with tantalising grasp of people fleeing the Middle East.

However, with an economic crisis of its own and islands equipped only to accommodate short-stay sun-worshippers, the country was in no position to handle the influx. Despite the strain on Greece, prime minister Alexis Tsipras has remained moderate and has been a strong supporter of Angela Merkel’s efforts to involve all member states in sharing the burden.



Population 82.7m, refugees 970,365, asylum seekers 429,304.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron welcome EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to the Meseberg Palace, northeastern Germany, ahead of a EU summit. Picture: Ludovic Marin
German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron welcome EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to the Meseberg Palace, northeastern Germany, ahead of a EU summit. Picture: Ludovic Marin

Germany took the greatest share of migrants of any EU country over the past few years, with asylum claims peaking at 722,400 in 2016. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s famously said her country could absorb all who came, but her open door policy has left her in an increasingly precarious position politically, both on the domestic and EU front.

Asylum has not been granted as liberally as in the past with subsidiary protection, reviewable after a period, being used in particular for arrivals from Syria, who also were denied access to family reunification programmes as a result.

Merkel is pushing the EU for a new and fairer agreement on sharing asylum seekers to try to stave off her hardline coalition partner’s threat to install checkpoints on previously free borders and turn back migrants who registered elsewhere.


Population 67m, refugees 337,177, asylum seekers 63,127.

From early 2015, ‘The Jungle’, an unofficial migrant camp in the port town of Calais, became a symbol of the migration crisis, with an estimated 7,000-10,000 north African and Middle Eastern people living in squalid conditions there at the peak.

Though cleared in 2016, France continued to receive large numbers of arrivals, with 93,000 new asylum applications last year alone, up on the 78,000 in 2016.

As Merkel’s power base erodes, President Emmanuel Macron has become the lead voice urging unity on the migration issue and while urging a radical overhaul of migration policy, his language has been temperate.

He favours the idea of member states having internal border controls to enable them turn away migrants who have registered in another member country.



Population 17m, refugees 103,860, asylum seekers 5,818.

Up until last year, the Netherlands was broadly welcoming to new migrants, but a general election threat from the far right prompted the ruling party to adopt a tougher stance. Prime minister Marke Rutte has accused Italy and Greece of failing to register most arrivals, thus allowing them to slip undocumented into the rest of Europe.

Italy responded by telling the Netherlands to start taking in migrant rescue boats run by Dutch NGOs. Rutte remains a moderate, though he’s pushing for tight new EU-wide restrictions.


Population 4.2m, refugees 504, asylum seekers 415.

When Croatia joined the EU in 2013, just as the migrant crisis was escalating, the country’s own refugee experience was still fresh. Around 25,000 Croatians are still classed as refugees in other countries as a result of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

During the crisis, thousands of migrants passed from Bosnia to Slovenia, Croatia and onto western Europe, before Croatia came under pressure to tighten controls along its mountainous border with Bosnia.

Croatia is keen to show it can control its borders as it is pushing to join the Schengen free travel area that covers the majority of EU countries. The Croatian prime minister has, nevertheless, adopted a fairly conciliatory tone, urging Europe to balance migration control with humanitarian obligations.


Population 1.2m, refugees 9,800, asylum seekers 5,263.

Located just 60 miles from Syria, yet within the EU, Cyprus might seem an obvious target for migrants but the numbers arriving on the island have been modest. As with Croatia, Cyprus is not yet in Schengen, so it’s not a first-choice destination and government policy is somewhat ambiguous. While accepting the EU relocation scheme, preference was stated for Christian migrants only and, while subsidiary protection rather than asylum is usually granted, work and travel rights are severely restricted.

Nevertheless, conscious of the experience of other island member states, Cyprus is keen to work for a strong, united EU policy rather than go it alone.


Population 5.5m, refugees 20,805, asylum seekers 3,150.

The extremes to which some migrants will go to reach Europe were illustrated in Finland in recent days, when a number of people from North Africa travelled to Russia ostensibly for the World Cup and headed to the far north-west — some on foot — to cross the border into Finland.

The country has had relatively flexible asylum laws, allowing claimants to make repeated fresh applications, but there is a move to tighten that up. Also, the government is calling for an EU-wide clampdown on uncontrolled migration, while at the same time raising the official EU asylum quota to 250,000 per year.


Population 600,000, refugees 2,046, asylum seekers 1,495.

Although Luxembourg agreed to take only 400 people under the EU relocation scheme, that works out as substantial on a per-capita basis. Luxembourg has long welcomed foreigners who account for about 45% of the resident population, but Europe’s migrant crisis has sparked debate about the impact on cultural identity and the future of the Luxembourgish language, as most business is now conducted in French or German.

State supports for asylum seekers are good, but the high cost of living deters migrants.


Population 10.3m, refugees 1,623, asylum seekers 45.

Located away from the main migration routes, Portugal has seen few migrants. It accepted the EU relocation scheme though it took just half the 1,900 people it was allocated.

Other EU states — such as Italy — have said Portugal needs to shoulder a greater share of the migration burden. So far, the government have maintained a moderate approach, though it’s notable that two-thirds of all asylum applications were turned down last year.


Population 19.7m, refugees 3,924, asylum seekers 1,540.

As one of the poorest countries in Europe, still outside the Schengen area, and with a poorly developed asylum system, Romania has not been a destination of choice for migrants, but it is a stopping off point on the way to western Europe. Also, the restrictions imposed by Turkey on those departing for Europe and the barriers erected by Hungary on those trying to reach Germany have made the Black Sea route an alternative option.

Numbers arriving this way have been small, but Romania is concerned about how it would cope if a trickle turned into a stream. With its Schengen hopes in mind, it is keen to be seen to be supportive of a united EU solution.


Population 46.3m, refugees 17,561, asylum seekers 34,871.

Migrants arrive on the NGO ‘SOS Mediterranee’ ship Aquarius at the eastern port of Valencia, Spain, eight days ago.
Migrants arrive on the NGO ‘SOS Mediterranee’ ship Aquarius at the eastern port of Valencia, Spain, eight days ago.

Newly elected prime minister Pedro Sanchez won praise from humanitarian groups after stepping in to take the Aquarius migrant rescue ship after it was turned away from Italy and Malta this month, but the gesture and Sanchez’s appeal to other EU members to unite in their efforts to help migrants, made little impression on Italy’s interior minister who replied that he could take the next four ships too while he was at it.

Spain could certainly do more. It took just over 1,300 of the 16,000 asylum seekers it was allocated under the EU relocation scheme.


Population 10m, refugees 240,962, asylum seekers 51,646.

Sweden’s open-door policy to migrants during the peak of the crisis saw it take more than 156,000 asylum applications in one year, but there was a tightening of controls in 2016 and family reunification rights were curtailed.

Still, Sweden has the highest number of refugees in Europe, per capita, though it has caused unease and immigration is high on the agenda for September’s general elections, with right-wing parties gaining ground in early opinion polls.



Population 11.3m, refugees 42,168, asylum seekers 18,760.

The fragility of Belgium’s coalition government has caused a shift towards a more hardline stance on migration and, while prime minister Charles Michel speaks in moderate tones, his right-wing immigration minister Theo Francken drowns him out.

Francken was one of the few European ministers to openly back Italy on its refusal to allow the Aquarius rescue ship to dock and said all such boats should be turned away. Francken is also embroiled in a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 people to perilous circumstances in Sudan.

In contrast, there were sizeable demonstrations in recent months against clearances of makeshift migrant camps and the death of a Kurdish toddler shot dead by police as they pursued a van carrying illegal immigrants.


Population 5.7m, refugees 35,672, asylum seekers 4,265.

Sandwiched between Germany and Sweden, which were seen as beacons to migrants, Denmark received more than 21,000 asylum applications in 2015 alone, a relatively high number given the population size. The backlash came swiftly, with laws being changed to reduce work and welfare entitlements for asylum seekers and stricter policies on family reunification brought in. From January this year, Denmark has withdrawn from the UNHCR resettlement scheme for verified refugees.

Right-wing political parties have gained strength and are expected to make further gains in next summer’s general election.


Population 7.1m, refugees 19,184, asylum seekers 2,724.

The Bulgarian-Turkish border was an early flashpoint in the migration crisis, with troops being dispatched to erect a fortified wall to stop migrants, sometimes spontaneously assisted by groups of the public.

While more than 60,000 asylum claims were initiated there, most applicants didn’t stay, slipping through to western Europe or turning back to try a different route.

Despite the generally hostile reception to migrants, Bulgaria did remain keen on a united EU response.

However, in recent days, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has called for a complete shutdown of all EU borders to migrants until a new action plan is put in place.


Population 450,000, refugees 8,000, asylum seekers 1,380.

For a decade before the current migration crisis erupted, it was a regular occurrence for boatloads of mainly African migrants to land on Maltese shores, but the welcome mat was pulled up in 2014 and vessels encountered in Maltese waters have been diverted to Italy. Speculation has been rife as to what deal was struck with Italy (an electricity interconnector and deep sea oil exploration permits have been mentioned) to enable this arrangement to continue, but it broke down spectacularly earlier this month when Italy turned away the Aquarius rescue ship and said Malta should take it. Malta refused, as it fears an influx if it gives in.


Population 2m, refugees 614, asylum seekers 274.

Tens of thousands of migrants crossed into Slovenia from Croatia in 2015 and 2016 after Hungary closed its borders. The majority were passing through, but Slovenia wasn’t taking any chances and brought in new laws to automatically expel anyone arriving at the border who wasn’t a programme refugee, without recourse to an asylum claim, and a razor wire barrier was erected.

Arrivals dropped in 2017, but were up again in the early part of this year. An anti-migration party headed by an ally of Hungary’s Orban got most seats in this month’s general election and is currently in talks on forming a coalition government.



Population 1.3m, refugees 411, asylum seekers 44.

Estonia, located away from the main migrant routes, has been largely unaffected by the current migration crisis. The country supported the EU relocation scheme, but of the 160 migrants admitted, around half are believed to have left.


Population 2m, refugees 662, asylum seekers 63.

Latvia is busy building an anti-immigration fence, but it’s along the border with Russia, as the migration trails start in Africa and the Middle East. Around 480 people were taken in under resettlement and relocation schemes, but with low financial supports and barriers to work, many have left to try their luck elsewhere.


Population 2.8m, refugees 1,580, asylum seekers 256.

Migration is a big issue for Lithuania, but chiefly because the country has lost tens of thousands of its own citizens to western Europe. The country is building a fence on its border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to control migration from this route, but it didn’t object to taking 300 people under the EU relocation scheme. It also has difficulty convincing people to stay.


Population 4.7m, refugees 6,405, asylum seekers 6,035.

Location left Ireland off the migrant trails that cut through mainland Europe and out of the emergency summit convened at the weekend. In 2015, Ireland pledged to accept 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers under the UNHCR resettlement and EU relocation schemes but had only received 1,842 in total by the middle of this month. A further 345 are due this year.

Ireland supports Merkel’s efforts towards a unified, humanitarian EU response, but the country’s voice is a small one.

United Kingdom:

Population 65.5m, refugees 121,837, asylum seekers 40,365.

The UK’s imminent departure from the EU has left it out of the current crisis talks but even before the Brexit vote, the country was opting out of the EU relocation scheme, devising its own resettlement scheme for Syrians which has so far seen around 12,000 brought there with possibly another 8,000 to follow.

Anti-immigrant sentiment was successfully exploited by Brexiteers.

Avoiding action

The iconic picture of the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi on the beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. In 2016, a court sentenced two Syrian smugglers to four years and two months each over the deaths of Aylan and four other people. Picture: Nilufer Demir
The iconic picture of the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi on the beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. In 2016, a court sentenced two Syrian smugglers to four years and two months each over the deaths of Aylan and four other people. Picture: Nilufer Demir

Three years ago this September, the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying lifeless on a Turkish beach had European leaders falling over each other to call for a compassionate response to the migration crisis.

Now they’re tripping over each other in the scramble to run away from the challenges the ongoing crisis has created.

The plight of the Aquarius, an NGO search and rescue ship with more than 600 desperate migrants on board, refused entry to Italy and Malta earlier this month before eventually being accepted by Spain after eight days at sea, showed just how much attitudes have changed.

Over the weekend, 17 EU countries met in an emer-gency mini-summit to try to find common ground on migration ahead of a full European Council summit this Thursday and Friday but the megaphone diplomacy in recent times — though diplomacy may be too grand a word for it — has been peppered with talk of border closures, trade disruption, disbandment of the Schengen free travel area, pick-and-choose compliance with EU policies, and a central European style Brexit.

In short, the end of the ideals and agreements on which the EU is based.

Talks are no longer simply about a migration crisis but about a European unity crisis.

None of this happened overnight. The wars in Syria and Libya have been raging since 2011 and the conflicts in the wider Middle East and central, eastern, and northern Africa much longer.

Sooner or later, the trickle of people who put their own small fishing boats to sea from the shores of North Africa and Turkey in order to reach the EU was going to turn into a flood of people and a fleet of vessels.

And yet Europe seemed surprised — hostile even — when that happened. At least, it did up until the death of little Alan Kurdi had the effect of causing everyone to pause for breath and consider the human tragedy involved.

But, even then, Europe’s response failed to live up to its promise. The EU relocation scheme — aimed at dispersing 120,000 migrants from makeshift camps in Italy and Greece to the other member states — failed miserably. When it wrapped up last September, fewer than 30,000 had been relocated.

Arrangements between the UN and individual countries to take refugees fom official camps mainly in the Middle East were more successful but the numbers were small. Just over 112,000 Syrians have been, or are soon due to be, resettled in Europe since 2013 when there are more than 5.6m Syrian refugees in need of support.

Right-wing politicians across the continent have used nationality — of Iraqis Syrians, and Afghans in particular — to boost their following by stoking up fears of Islamist extremism, ably assisted by the terrorist attacks at the Bataclan in Paris, London, Manchester, Barcelona, Nice, and Brussels Airport, among others.

And all the while Europe is overly-dependent on its volatile next-door neighbour, Turkey, where more than 3.5m refugees — the vast majority Syrian — and more than 300,000 asylum seekers await their fate.

Turkey is receiving billions of euro in return for preventing departures — just as Libya is, controversially, receiving support and training to intercept boats while still in Libyan waters and return migrants to shore to what NGOs say are detention centres run on brutality and extortion.

These arrangements cannot continue indefinitely and Europe needs a new, cohesive, future-proofed response that doesn’t turn a broadly prosperous, peaceful bloc of 500m people into a bickering mess over the needs of a few million more.

Migrant numbers are falling. There have been 41,381 arrivals by sea to date this year, so the 2018 total will be far lower than the 172,301 in 2017 and a fraction of the 1.015m who came in 2015. But more than 15,500 died from 2014-2017 and 1,063 more this year to date, no doubt many children like Alan Kurdi among them.

As the number of boat crossings increases over the summer, the race is on not only to stop more deaths, but to prevent the demise of European unity too.

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