While people fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are still making the dangerous journey by land and sea to Europe, they are not arriving in the same numbers as they were in 2015, when more than a million people, mostly from Syria, sought refuge on the continent.
That is partly due to deals between the EU and the main transit countries, Turkey and Libya, although the nature of the situations people are fleeing is such that the numbers could rise again.
“We know that the situation in Syria has not been resolved and that conditions are very difficult for Syrian migrants in countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon,” says Katie Kuschminder, an assistant professor researching migration at Maastricht University and at United Nations University Merit.
“We also know the situation in Eritrea has not changed, and we have lots of evidence showing that the conditions for Eritreans is getting much worse in Ethiopia and Sudan,” she continues.
“So it’s increasingly difficult for people who are refugees to find countries of safety, and that’s why they seek to come to Europe.”
Brussels officials say the risk of a new influx underlines the need for a better plan, but political divisions among member states suggest the EU is far from coming up with one in time for a leaders’ summit at the end of the month.
Brussels initially tried to distribute 160,000 asylum seekers from the main arrival countries, Italy and Greece, around all the member states.
That plan provoked protests from Eastern countries including Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which either refuged or resisted taking in asylum seekers, despite the small numbers the system would have them receive.
Gerald Knaus, who chairs the European Stability Initiative think tank, says talks risk focusing more on those rifts than on coming up with a meaningful plan.
“It [an EU asylum policy] needs to be able to make a quick decision about who needs protection. We also need to have decent reception conditions for those who are waiting for these decisions to be made. And thirdly, we need to have a sense of how we return those who do not get protection,” he says.
“If you don’t have any of these three elements in place, then a discussion on how to distribute asylum seekers within the EU is not a good place to start.”
The issue has been politicised to such an extent that progress towards a meaningful plan appears distant.
“There was an initial moment around late 2015 and early 2016 when there was a real opportunity to change the EU’s asylum and migration system,” says Giulia Lagana, senior analyst of EU migration and asylum policies with the Open Society European Policy Institute.
“But as the numbers went down the sense of urgency passed […]. Instead of trying to fix the broken asylum rules, the EU’s efforts and its member states’ efforts in particular, over the last two and a half to three years, have mainly been about trying to keep people out.”
The arrival of a new government in Italy suggests that debates will not change course before the European leaders' summit of 28-29 June.
New Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called for “obligatory” and “automatic” redistribution of asylum seekers among member states, which of course goes against the wishes of Eastern governments, who nonetheless share many of the new Italian government’s opposition to the existing EU practices.
“I don’t think there’s any prospect that the European summit will come up with a solution to Europe’s asylum rules,” Lagana says.
“I think there’s a very good chance that the EU won’t be able to reform its asylum and migration rules before the European election in 2019.”