Hardening the asylum?

El derecho al asilo

Migration seems to have become a hot political issue throughout the Western world, as Victor Arribas explains. Despite this, immigrants do not vote, which means that their opinion does not usually count in political debates - even though migration policies affect them personally - and that the unfulfilled promises of the winning candidates do not usually take their toll in the next elections. 

A few years ago, when Pedro Sánchez was not president but leader of the opposition, the secretary general of the PSOE demanded that the Rajoy government "move from good words to deeds" regarding asylum. Shortly after coming to power, Sanchez opened the doors to the Aquarius, a ship that had rescued 629 immigrants shipwrecked in the Mediterranean. The operation was a propaganda success, but since then the facts have not accompanied this isolated gesture.

This week, a major national media outlet announced that the government is preparing a new law that will "toughen" asylum conditions. The draft law to which the newspaper has had access has not been published or leaked to other media, so it is difficult to know how this "tightening" will take place.  According to the same newspaper that published the news, the new law will allow for the rejection of asylum applications from those people coming from countries that have areas where they can settle down safely. However, this measure would go against the principle of non-refoulement contained in the Geneva Convention on Refugees, to which Spain is a signatory. We will have to wait for access to the draft law before speculating further on it.

Sirios desplazados se sientan fuera de sus tiendas en el campamento de Deir al-Ballut

In any case, it is curious that it is considered that Spain could make asylum more difficult. Beyond the alarmist rhetoric of some political parties and the government's complacency, the reality is that the asylum system in our country is completely collapsed, something that the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid (CEAR) has been warning about since 2017. The collapse is due to the dramatic increase in asylum applications and the slowness, but also to an administration that has not adapted to the new challenges. Spain grants refugee status to a very low percentage of applicants (only 2.75% of the applications processed in 2019), and is also one of the European Union countries with the most pending applications due to the slowness of the system. 

The figures for the Spanish asylum system, published each year by the Ministry of the Interior and synthesized by CEAR, give us a good perspective of the scale of the problem: between 2007 and 2014 a total of 34,411 asylum applications were registered, while in 2017 alone there were 31,120 cases, a record figure that was again exceeded in 2018 (54,065) and 2019 (118,264). In other words, almost 20 times more applications were received in 2019 than in 2014. This dramatic increase in applications has not been accompanied by an increase in the number of staff to examine the applications - in fact, at the end of 2017 there was a restructuring of the staffing of the Asylum Office which exacerbated the delays. There are currently more than 130,000 unprocessed asylum applications, many of which have been pending since 2018. 

Niños sirios desplazados observan desde una tienda de campaña en el campamento de Deir al-Ballut

Although the stereotype of a refugee is that of a person from Africa or the Middle East who has crossed the Mediterranean in an unregulated boat, the truth is that most asylum seekers in Spain come from Latin America. During the last four years, Venezuela has been the leading country in terms of requests. The evolution of the figures reflects well the development of the humanitarian crisis and the breakdown of the Maduro regime: If in 2015 only 596 Venezuelans requested asylum in Spain, in 2016 3,960 people did so, 10,350 in 2017, 19,280 in 2018 and 40,906 in 2019, numbers that coincide with the increase of Venezuelan refugees globally. However, until last year most of the requests for asylum from Venezuelans in Spain were rejected. In 2017, 99 percent of the applications processed by Venezuelans received a negative response and only 15 people were granted refugee status. In 2019 there were not many more (48), but for the first time temporary residence permits were granted on humanitarian grounds and 39,667 Venezuelans were able to benefit from them. 

We must not forget that behind the figures and statistics there are people. Both immigrants and officials and police affected by the collapse of the system have been reporting for several years the long queues and waiting in the centres that process asylum and alien applications. The bureaucratic delay creates enormous uncertainty for asylum seekers, who do not know whether they will be admitted to Spain or deported and cannot regulate their situation or access to residency and work permits. I personally know several people who, despite having received a positive response from the administration, have been waiting for months for their residence card, with all the stress, anxiety and insecurity that this entails, as they cannot rent a flat or apply for a legal job.

As we saw in the case of the fight against irregular migration, the figures and the reality about the right to asylum in Spain contrast with the media coverage and the discourse of the political parties. Although it may seem the opposite, Spain is a rather restrictive country in terms of refuge and in addition the asylum system is completely overwhelmed by the lack of personnel and means. Probably, the idea of "hardening the conditions of asylum" has been a balloon probe of the government. However, the real question, given the figures and the situation of the administration, is whether these conditions can really be made more stringent.