By Nicola Davis
The majority of Europeans support proportional allocation of asylum seekers, a system that takes into account each country’s capacity, research has revealed.
But the study also shows that support for the system is dramatically affected by the number of asylum seekers expected for each country if the policy were implemented.
Published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour by researchers from the US, Britain and Switzerland, the study is based on an online survey of 18,000 citizens of 15 European countries
While, overall, 72% of participants across 15 countries supported proportional allocation when taken at face value, just under 58% backed it when told of its expected impact on the number of asylum seekers in their country. Most countries would see an increase in asylum seekers if they were distributed proportionally.
However, experts say the latest findings add weight to calls for a change in policyfrom current rules in which asylum seekers to Europe should apply in the first country in which they arrive.
“We asked people what kind of asylum system they want and what kind of asylum system they believe is fair, because back then [in 2016 when the survey was conducted], and still now, it is obvious that the current Dublin system is not working,” said Dominik Hangartner, co-author of the research from the London School of Economics.
“We had a little bit of a suspicion that the loudest voices are not necessarily representative of what the majority of the population believes,” said Hangartner.
The team randomly split the participants into four groups. The first was simply asked to select their favourite of three systems for allocating asylum seekers to countries.
One option was that applications for asylum should be allocated to the European country in which the asylum seeker first arrived (the current system); another was that each country should be allocated the same number of asylum applications; and the final option was that each country should receive applications in proportion to its capacity. The latter is a system that takes into account factors such as the country’s population size, GDP, unemployment rate and number of past applications.
The team found that for all 15 countries, the majority of participants backed proportional allocation, with 72% of all those who took part favouring the approach once factors such as age distribution and education levels for each country’s population were taken into account.
The second group of participants was also asked to choose one of the three systems, but they were told how the system currently operates and were presented with arguments for and against policy change. Again, proportional allocation received the majority of support across all countries, with almost 69% of participants backing the system.
The preferences expressed changed dramatically when a third group of participants was told just how many asylum seekers their country would be allocated for each system, based on real-world data from 2015.
“We made it very explicit, very salient, what that would imply in terms of additional numbers of asylum seekers, and asked them the question: ‘OK, which system do you prefer?’” said Hangartner.
For the UK, that would mean an increase from the 38,700 applications under the current system to 43,200 if each country received the same number, and 159,600 under the proportional allocation system.
For all countries, such as Germany, that would receive fewer asylum applications, support for proportional allocation was even higher than for those unaware of the figures. For all countries which would receive more applications under proportional allocation, the reverse was true.
While almost 61% of those in Britain supported proportional allocation on the face of it, only 31% backed the policy when the expected increase in asylum applications was made clear. Similar patterns of support for proportional allocation were seen for the final group of participants, who were given both additional information on the policies and the relevant figures.
Nevertheless, the researchers point out that six of the 10 countries that would see more asylum applications still had a majority in favour of proportional allocation even when the figures were revealed. That, Hangartner said, suggests there might be more support for reform that previously thought, adding that he believes support for proportional allocation is high because it chimes with norms around fairness also seen in other systems.
Judith Dennis, policy manager at the Refugee Council, welcomed the study. “This research confirms our own experience of the public’s clear compassion for refugees and instinct to welcome people seeking asylum,” she said.
“We urge the new government to take heed of this empathy and work to provide protection to our fair share of refugees, as well as support those refugees split from their families to reunite and live together in safety.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have a proud history of offering protection to those who need it. In 2016, the UK resettled more refugees than any other EU member state, and in the five years up to December 2016 more than 23,000 children and adults have been reunited with family members in Britain.
“However, it is vital we do not incentivise treacherous journeys across Europe which play into the hands of people traffickers. We stand by the well-established principle that those seeking protection should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach.”
Published on The Guardian on June 26, 2017.