Three times during his seven-hour swim, Omar Jabr thought that he was not going to make it. The only thing he could hear was his pounding heart, a sound he tried to drown out with silent prayers. He was helped by the sounds of his exhausted body as it fought its way through the water.
When the boat capsized, he had volunteered to do the swim. After all, he was the best swimmer on board, and he judged the visible stretches of the Greek shore to be just about one hour away. While the remaining 20 people from the boat treaded water somewhere in the Aegean Sea that separates Turkey and Greece, he swam. For their lives and his own.
For the 30-year-old father of five, the water marked the difference between the hopeless situation in his native Syria and a future in the safety of Europe. He knew he couldn’t return to Syria, but he had no idea where he should seek refuge. He did not care either. For the time being he was more than preoccupied with staying alive.
What causes immigrants to choose a certain destination? Research shows that most of the factors influencing the decision are outside the realm of immigration policy. Most immigrants know little about the policies in European countries that does influence their decision until they reach Europe, where a breakdown in the rules regarding asylum seekers allows asylum shopping. The best anti-immigration lawmakers can hope for is to push the immigrants to a neighboring country, but really a reform of the rules regulating asylum in Europe is necessary.
Omar Jabr is one of the 626.065 immigrants who managed to find his way to European soil in 2014 according to Eurostat. That number was 44% higher than in 2013 and almost twice as high as in 2012. More people are fleeing their home countries now than any time since the Second World War. That is felt in Denmark as well. In 2014, 14.815 people sought asylum in Denmark, twice as many as in 2013.
"You have the responsibility," opposition leader Lars Løkke Rasmussen (the Liberal party) lambasted prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Social Democracy) in a recent TV debate: “You have given refugee families a raise of 10.000 kr. per month (1.200€). You have passed legislation that makes it possible to live and work outside of asylum centers."
It may sound intuitively true, but research suggests that welfare benefits play a minor, if any, role. It didn’t influence the decision of Omar Jabr: "No! You get the same money in Sweden, Germany, The Netherlands. I chose Denmark, because I heard it was quick here."
In his seventh hour in the Aegan Sea, Jabr had managed to find a boat with British tourists, who dragged him aboard before they sailed to help the rest of the capsized boat’s passengers. They escorted them all back to Turkey. But Jabr did not give up and the third time was the charm. In 2014, he successfully made it to Greece. From there he flew to Italy and then Denmark. The last seven months his home has been a 8 square meter room in the asylum center in Jelling.
Sitting on the lower bunk of his bunkbed, that he used to share, but right now is the only inhabitant of, he explains his reasoning for going to Denmark: "I thought to come to Denmark because I was told I could get a residency permit here quickly. Two months for me and then two months to get my family here."
The idea that welfare benefits is the decisive factor for asylum seekers, often derided as so-called economic refugees, is widespread. The generous states even have a name: They are welfare magnets. The existence of such an effect is contested however. Scholars are questioning both whether the immigrants have that kind of precise knowledge, and whether welfare benefits matter even if they do. In fact, most studies show that refugees generally seem to think like Omar Jabr.
One of the very first studies that looked at empirical data from more countries was done in 2008 by Mariola Pytliková. She examined OECD countries from 1990-2000 and found no significant evidence for the welfare magnet hypothesis. More research has been done since, but the picture has not changed: "90% of studies conducted both on aggregate data and micro data do not find a relationship between welfare benefits and migration. It is so surprising for us researchers to see how hot this topic is in so many European countries, when the research shows that it actually does not play a big role," she says.
A lot rides on chance
But if the welfare benefits are not attracting the many new asylum seekers, what is? That question is still disputed in academic circles. In fact, a major faulty line in the debate is between scholars who argue that politicians actually have very little room to influence the final destinations of asylum seekers, and scholars who argue that some policies indeed do have an impact. In the first school, we predominantly find qualitative scholars such as Heaven Crawley from Coventry University. Qualitative studies generally show that policy in the destination countries rarely affects where asylum seekers seek refuge.
In 2010 Crawley did a qualitative study of 43 asylum seekers and refugees in Britain. She found that only a third of them had chosen to go to the UK themselves. Those who had chosen themselves had been motivated by "colonial, historical and linguistic links, the presence of family members, and a general perception of the UK as a safe and politically stable country." Factors that are largely beyond the reach of lawmakers.
"Many recent policies are driven by fundamental misperceptions about the extent to which asylum seekers actively ‘choose’ to come to the UK," Crawley argues. She doubts that the policy proposals of the Danish opposition parties to lower welfare benefits and restrict the right of asylum seekers to work outside of asylum centers will have an impact: "In my experience, refugees know little or nothing of the situation in individual countries in Europe. Let’s face it, the situation changes so often that even those of us who are ‘experts’ can barely keep up."
The case for policy
Scholars working in an empirical tradition do not agree with Heaven Crawley’s assessment that policy does not make any difference. In a research overview done by Mathias Czaika and Hein de Haas from the DEMIG project, a EU-supported project tasked with discovering what determines international migration, they found that the "available evidence suggests that migration policies have a significant effect on migration," but that the effect is relatively small compared to other, economic and political determinants of migration." Such empirical efforts are especially hard to get right, because of a number of complementary effects that should be taken into account, such as the effect anti-immigration policy has on simultaneous efforts to attract more highly educated immigrants or on the return rate of immigrants.
The case of Omar Jabr both shows that policy does have an effect, and that it is hard for the immigrants to stay on top of changing situations in the possible destination countries. He chose Denmark because he was told he would be able to get a residency permit and get his family to Denmark within four months. "And now I’ve been here for one year, we still haven’t started getting my wife up. Wait, wait, wait. The Danish system is good for waiting," he sighs.
Dublin not helping
According to Heaven Crawley, most asylum seekers are primarily concerned with escaping from prosecution or war, not where they will end up. That research is echoed in Omar Jabr’s story. As he was swimming in the waters between Turkey and Greece, he did not know where he wanted to end. He just wanted to get away.
At some point, though, immigrants do decide for a country. A 2014 paper by Jan-Paul Brekke and Grete Brochmann gives us an idea of when: They looked at Eritreans in Italy, and found that their situation changed dramatically when they landed in Italy with regards to information, sources, networks and thoughts about the future. The refugee centers were a hotspot of information exchange, for these Eritreans of whom the majority knew nothing about the Dublin Regulation or different national asylum policies before they fled their home countries. Back then, most reported, "their primary concern was to get out of Eritrea."
The Dublin Regulation is the name of the rules that govern asylum seekers in the EU. They state that an asylum seeker in the EU must have their cases processed in the country where they have been registered. It is the duty of all the European countries to register the asylum seekers upon arrival in their countries.
The internet is also important in the dissemination of knowledge. When Omar Jabr finally managed to reach the shores of Greece, he used social media to get information about which destination would be good for him. The information he got in Greece made a huge difference: "First I had wanted to go to Sweden, because there I can get passport after five years, or Holland because it has good weather or Britain, it’s a nice area. But people on Facebook told me, ‘if you want a residency permit quickly, want to get your family with you quickly, come to Denmark’."
Asylum shopping, critics call it, when refugees in for example Italy or Greece try to engineer a second asylum move. Brekke and Brochmann’s study of Eritreans showed that the wish for a second move was almost systemic for asylum seekers in Italy, even though this is one of the things that the Dublin Regulation was put in place to stop. It is failing for at least two reasons. Firstly, it is dependent on states actually registering the arriving asylum seekers. Especially Italy and Greece have been criticized for not doing their job. Secondly, verdicts by the European Human Rights Court have exacerbated the problem by declaring that the treatment of asylum seekers in some countries are so bad, that other states can’t simply send asylum seekers back to these countries, even if they are registered there. After the latest of these verdicts, Marlene Wind, a respected law professor who specializes in the EU, commented that "the Dublin Regulations have de facto collapsed."
When the registration and send-back process doesn’t work, it encourages immigrants to ‘try their luck’ somewhere else. For Omar Jabr it was easy. Even though the Greece police had held him in custody, they never registered him in the Dublin system. Armed with a fake passport, that turned him into the honorable Belgian citizen William Fier, he could easily board a plane heading to Denmark.
The failings of the Dublin Regulation in this way seem to affect the way national politicians legislate. It indirectly incentives harsh anti-immigration legislation. If asylum seekers are completely free to choose their destination, it makes sense to legislate in a way that deters them from choosing your country. Refugees flee because of war and conflict, but with the Dublin system not working, it allows asylum seekers in Europe to calculate which EU country they would prefer to live in.
A race to the bottom
"It is a challenge to avoid a zero-sum game among Member States, in which the best any single country can achieve is to divert unwanted migrants to another Member State." That is the message in a new report from the Brussels based non-profit Migration Policy Institute.
According to Eva Singer, chief of asylum at the Danish Refugee Council, a race to the bottom is already happening: "Many countries are trying not to live up to their responsibility. There is a huge emphasis from governments on sending signals about new harsher policies. But we can’t change the number of refugees. They will continue to exist and they will come to Europe. If not to one country, then to another."
Research by Jan-Paul Brekke suggests that she is right. When the Danish government introduced harsher anti-immigration policy in 2002, the refugees moved to Sweden instead. Without the open attitude of Denmark’s neighbor, it is very likely that Denmark would have received a considerably higher amount of asylum seekers.
Eva Singer strongly advocates a reform of the Dublin Regulation: "The way it works now is completely unsuitable." Not only are the conditions in some of the Southern countries inhumane, it is also administratively costly and ineffective. A quota system would be a good start: "Not a lot of countries are lining up behind the idea, but I don’t see any other way forward," Singer argues.
These days, Omar Jabr still spends a lot of time on social media. Something has changed though. When he was in transit in Greece, he used to be the one asking questions on Facebook groups that helped migrants find a new European home. He still surfs on the same sites, but now he is the one dispensing his experience to other transiting migrants.
I ask him what he replies when people ask whether they should come to Denmark. He apologizes before answering:
"Never think about it! Don’t come to Denmark. Go to Holland, go to somewhere else. I’ve been here one year and not even started to bring my family. The people in the government don’t care about you. The people in the immigration service don’t care whether your family lives or not. Think about somewhere else."
Ole Krogsgaard is a Danish journalist interested in European issues. Contact him on Facebook.