The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has just come out with its 2010 report on asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are a particular class of forced migrants who are seeking protection from being sent back to their home county but whose refugee status has not yet been determined. In other words, where refugees are resettled by governments, asylum seekers resettle themselves. The UNHCR report is compiled from statistics provided from 44 industrialized countries, mostly countries in North American and Europe (not to slight Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea).
Globally, the report tells us that there were 358,800 new asylum applications worldwide in 2010. This is down 6% from 2009 (378,360, for those of you counting), but with asylum cases (which are legal cases often adjudicated in underfunded immigration courts) often going on for two years or more, it doesn’t tell us how many asylum seekers there are total at any given time. That number is usually estimated at around 850,000 (though that number may be a little dated).
What’s notable about this year’s report is the origin of new asylum claims. As one would expect, conflicts that have lessened in the past year are “sending” fewer asylum seekers — for example, Iraq fell from the top asylum claim country in 2006-2008 and number two in 2009 to number 4 in 2010, or 6% of new claims worldwide. Can you guess what country was number one? Afghanistan? Nope: number two. The number one source of asylum seekers in 2010 was… Serbia.
Serbia? Yes, the number one country from which new asylum seekers fled in 2010 was Serbia. This represents a 57% increase over asylum seekers from Serbia in the previous year. Serbia was, of course, the primary aggressor in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, but things have been quiet recently… so why this increase? Well, it turns out it has not so much to do with any new round of ethnic cleansing as it does with European Union policy. It turns out Germany was the country where most of these migrant claimed asylum, and the report has the following to say about it:
Germany was the third largest recipient of applications among the 44 countries, with 41,30o new asylum requests registered during 2010. This is a 49 per cent increase compared to 2009 (27,700 claims)and the highest value since 2003. The increase in 2010 is partly attributed to a higher number of asylum-seekers from Serbia and The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, many of Roma origin. This may be the result of the European Union having waived visa requirements for both countries at the beginning of 2010.
The flight among Serbian Roma to Germany belies a larger truth about asylum seekers: they seek asylum in countries with healthy economies. In fact, if you look at the ranking of countries by number of new asylum claims and then look at the ranking of countries by asylum seeker to Gross Domestic Product (which is provided by the report for 2006-2010), they are almost identical:
2010 claims Claims by GDP 2006-2010
1. United States United States
2. France France
3. Germany United Kingdom
4. Sweden Sweden
5. Canada Canada
And if you were wondering, numbers six are the United Kingdom and Germany, respectively, rounding out the list. That’s all countries with robust economies. We often think that the defining experience of asylum seekers is flight from persecution, but that is only half of the story. Very often one form of persecution or result of destabilized societies is a lack of viable employment opportunities. People flee to somewhere, and that somewhere is not arbitrary — it is based on the perceived chance of a new, better livelihood. Very often forced migrants are also economic migrants. Whether the reverse is true is open to debate.