Drop in asylum numbers in Ireland may be short-lived

Political instability in Africa is expected to lead to an increase asylum claims to EU countries this year

The number of people who apply for asylum in the European Union usually falls in the winter and surges in the summer. It is a seasonal fluctuation dependent on conditions in the Mediterranean, which usually means fewer boats leave from North Africa to cross to Italy, Malta, Greece and Spain during the winter months, the primary route for irregular migration into Europe.

Numbers often fall in February because the figures reflect the asylum applications processed during the month, and February has fewer work days. But the big picture since 2019 has been an increase in migration to the EU, which was artificially suppressed during the pandemic due to travel bans and the reduced processing of asylum claims by national authorities.

Latest figures from the State’s International Protection Office show the number of people coming to Ireland and claiming asylum has dropped in recent months. While more than 1,300 people arrived in January seeking asylum, a level on a par with most of last year, this compared to 831 in February and 858 in March, The Irish Times reported on Tuesday.

A return to normal conditions in 2022 led to a surge in asylum applications as authorities worked through a backlog, and people who had been hoping to travel made the journey.


On top of that, people who fled the Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan – many of whom cross the continent on foot, in journeys that take months – began to arrive in great numbers in Europe.

Combined with refugees from Ukraine, who are not measured in asylum application statistics because they have automatic protection, this has strained accommodation facilities across Europe.

It points to the driving force behind migratory flows: political instability.

That is why the governments of several EU countries are expecting asylum claims to surge this year.

Italy saw arrivals of migrants by boat quadruple compared with the same period last year, with 42,206 people arriving between January 1st and May 2nd. EU border agency Frontex attributed the surge to better than usual weather, along with “political volatility in some countries of departure”.

More than a decade since the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya remains racked by a struggle for power that has drawn Turkish and Russian-backed forces, and people-smugglers have thrived in the lawless environment.

In neighbouring Tunisia the surge in departures coincided with an anti-immigration crusade by the increasingly authoritarian president Kais Saied that saw migrants attacked and driven from their homes. Many of the sub-Saharan refugees targeted in Tunisia had fled there from further south, working their way up through Africa to escape armed conflict, poverty and the collapse of livelihoods due to climate change.

In March the Italian government was briefed by its intelligence services that 685,000 people had accumulated in Libya in the hopes of making the Mediterranean crossing, the Corriere della Sera newspaper reported.

Whenever there is a violent breakdown of stability in Africa, the Middle East, or the wider European region beyond the EU, policymakers begin to expect an increase of people seeking asylum.

In Sudan, where fighting erupted last month, more than 100,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries, according to latest figures from the United Nations.

Many people who make their way to Italy, and other frontier states like Greece and Malta, have little aspiration to stay there. Their preferred destinations are in northern Europe. Even though asylum seekers are supposed to be processed by the first EU country they arrive in, the land borders are open and increased arrivals at the periphery usually translate into more asylum applications further north.

The Netherlands, where asylum applicants have often travelled over land through other EU countries, is expecting to receive a record number this year.

The Dutch government last week warned that asylum seeker accommodation would need to be ramped up to cater for an expected 70,000 applications in 2023, a figure exceeding the peak of 57,000 asylum applications received in 2015 during the refugee crisis caused by the Syrian civil war. Again, this does not include people from Ukraine.

Aside from crossing the Mediterranean, people also travel to seek refuge in the EU through the eastern land border with Russia, the borders with the western Balkans and eastern Mediterranean crossing points with Turkey. Each of the routes is influenced by different factors. But border crossing detection figures compiled by Frontex indicate that the numbers arriving have fallen on these routes compared with last year.

One factor may be the EU’s re-energised efforts at migration diplomacy. Late last year EU pressure led to Serbia ending visa-free travel for people from Tunisia and Burundi, who had used the country as a transit point to reach the EU. The air and sea routes into Ireland that asylum seekers use will have their own dynamics, which are not measured by EU figures. However, the number of people detected crossing the English Channel to Britain fell by 15 per cent compared with a year ago to 7,419 due to what Frontex described as an “unfavourable sea condition” – which could also play a role in Ireland’s figures.