The number just keeps on rising. While Europe is making progress in cutting down the influx of refugees reaching its shores, the number of those asylum seekers still stuck in limbo, waiting to be processed, has swelled.
About 1.5 million refugees came to Europe over the course of last year – primarily from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – and most of them are still waiting to hear whether they can actually stay.
As of the end of June, nearly 1.1 million asylum seekers were waiting for their applications to be processed by the authorities, figures released Thursday showed.
More than half of those – 571,500 to be exact – were waiting in Germany, according to the E.U. statistical agency. Europe’s largest economy has taken in far more asylum seekers than any other country on the continent.
“Germany has made quite a few investments in speeding up its system to deal in particular with claims from the western Balkans. But there’s a tension between making things go as quickly as possible and not cutting any corners.”
It is a reality that has put a massive strain on public services, even as Germany’s federal government and its states have plugged tens of billions into programs to help integrate refugees over the past year.
Even as European Union has made progress in cutting the number of refugees arriving on the continent, reaching a deal with Turkey for example, the backlog when it comes to processing those that have already arrived on Europe’s shores has climbed every month this year.
Susan Fratzke, an international policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute in Washington DC, said this is to be expected. Last year, much of the focus was simply on getting the overwhelming number of refugees registered and into temporary housing. Some may have yet to even formally file their asylum applications. Only now does the more cumbersome job of actually processing the applications get serious.
The numbers also show that Germany is shouldering far more than its fair share in the 28-nation bloc. Despite efforts by Germany to get its neighbors to share the load, the spread has actually become even more uneven over this past year.
More than 300,000 additional first-time applications were filed over the April to June period, slightly up from the first three months. Germany recorded a whopping 61 percent of these. The next highest country was Italy, with just under 9 percent. Even as a share of its population, Germany registered more than any other E.U. member.
The waiting game has taken a major toll on cities and on the refugees themselves, who can’t be properly integrated, apply for jobs or settle into permanent living quarters while they wait to find out whether or not they can stay in the country. Cities have been forced to set up a series of makeship camps to house those waiting for their applications to be processed, including, for example, at Berlin’s old airport Tempelhof.
The backlog is not for want of trying. Germany adopted laws late last year designed to speed up the application process. In March it also sought to increase the number of “safe countries” from which it will not accept asylum applications – mainly Balkan countries – and has aimed to process these within three weeks.
“Germany has made quite a few investments in speeding up its system to deal in particular with claims from the western Balkans,” Ms. Fratzke said. “But there’s a tension between making things go as quickly as possible and not cutting any corners.”
Designating some countries as safe won’t necessarily help too much, at least according to the latest figures. Like 2015, new applicants in the first half of this year came mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, amounting to nearly 60 percent of the total seeking asylum in Europe.
For these countries, finding a balance is trickier, Ms. Fratzke said. While some countries like Germany have experimented with speeding up claims from countries like Syria, on the expectation that they will be accepted, “you do risk creating something of a pull factor if you’re virtually guaranteeing that somebody will receive protection,” she said.
With Syria’s civil war showing no signs of dying down, it’s a dilemma that Germany will likely continue to face for a while yet.
Christopher Cermak is an editor covering economics and finance with Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org