Center for Global & International Studies, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Terrorism influences European asylum decisions, but humanitarian ideals remain, study finds

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas researcher has found that European states that experienced a terrorist attack on their own soil since 1980 were less likely to grant asylum to refugees.

However, Nazli Avdan's study also found that on the whole, concerns over terrorism in Europe have not eroded underpinnings of the Geneva Convention's principles regarding asylum admission.

"Generally speaking, the findings show the continuing influence of morals and humanitarian norms in policy-making. Despite concerns about terrorism, the humanitarian underpinnings of the Geneva regime on asylum are still robust," said Avdan, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science.

Her study found that countries did tend to tighten and slightly erode these norms in terms of full asylum recognition rates rather than composite rates that also include leave-to-stay without permanent recognition.

"Where security concerns hold sway is in cases involving direct attacks such as incidents on a state’s own soil or harming its own citizens,” she said.

Avdan examined asylum decisions by 17 European Union states, Norway and Switzerland from 1980 to 2007, and her study "Do Asylum Recognition Rates in Europe Respond to Transnational Terrorism? The Migration-Security Nexus Revisited" was published recently in the European Union Politics journal.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States created a growing anxiety about global terrorism, and Avdan said she found that two subsequent major terrorist attacks in Europe — the 2004 Madrid attacks and 2005 London bombings — caused Spain and the United Kingdom to institute tighter controls on granting asylum to refugees seeking to enter either country.

"You see more of this sort of tightening and reluctance to grant full asylum admission, which affords political migrants full refugee status, as defined by the Geneva Convention of 1951," said Avdan, who studies immigration and terrorism.

Interestingly, she found that in the wake of the 2004 and 2005 attacks, Spain and the United Kingdom did not seem to punish certain origin states that tend to be home to certain terrorist groups. They simply became more restrictive across the board at granting asylum.

For example, citizens such as minority Christians could apply from countries where there are brutal terrorism groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, where they are under threat of violence at home.

"They would be treated more favorably, I would say, based on my findings, which suggested that a high volume of terrorism within states leads to more tolerant policies against these states," Avdan said. "That's a good thing."

Asylum seekers are foreigners who seek admission to another state claiming an inability or unwillingness to return to their home country because of a well-founded fear of prosecution.

"This allays a fundamental concern expression by champions of humanitarianism that countries would be predisposed to return asylum seekers to states that are also the hotbeds of terrorism, on the grounds that admitting these migrants poses a threat to states' security," Avdan said.

She said in spite of the more intense media attention and fears about terrorism since 2001, on the whole European countries still adhere to the Geneva principles on handling asylum requests that need to be adjudicated.

"Human rights principles prove resilient to worldwide terrorism, showing that across Europe the Geneva regime still maintains its relevance," Avdan said. "I was surprised to find that for all of the talk about much ado about humanitarianism on decline, that's not the case."

She said one future policy implication might include pushes to revamp Geneva principles in the future because she found European destination states to be more reluctant to grant full refugee status to migrants and instead permit them to stay temporarily for humanitarian reasons.

"The trend toward admitting refugees on a temporary basis is leaving these migrants in a capacity to not be able to contribute to the economy of the country because they can never acquire permanent jobs," Avdan said. "And that's actually more of an economic burden and drain on the receiving country." 


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