Asylum applications to the European Union surpassed 1.14 million last year, higher than any time since the 2015-2016 migrant crisis. They increased 18 percent from 2022, with Syrians and then Afghans still applying in the largest numbers. The new data from the EU Agency for Asylum also reflects record applications from Palestinians in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, but does not include the 4.4 million displaced Ukrainians who have received temporary protection in Europe and do not need to formally apply.

Amid the surging numbers, the bloc reached a landmark deal to reform its migration and asylum system last December—the first in nearly a decade—that introduces an expedited border procedure for irregular arrivals, establishes a formula for countries to share the accommodation of asylum seekers more equitably and increases the EU’s reliance on Turkey and other third countries to host migrants.

The measures displease disparate sides: Humanitarian groups say the new rules weaken asylum protections, focusing on deterrence, while conservative and far-right parties say the changes do not go far enough.

The February figures come at a critical time, ahead of EU parliamentary elections in June, and will likely increase pressure on European politicians and feed far-right sentiment. As bitter debate on the issue looks set to rage with no end in sight, former ICWA fellows in Germany and Turkey predict that for migrants, situational push factors in their home countries will prove far more powerful determiners than EU policies intended to keep them away.

Journalist Emily Schultheis, who studied the rise of far-right populism as an ICWA fellow in Germany from 2019 to 2021, says migration issues shape a core part of the European far-right’s identity. Based in Berlin, Emily writes about politics, populism and democracy for the Associated Press, Foreign Policy and other outlets. “It’s clear whether in Europe or the United States,” she says, “that migration is an issue on voters’ minds, and that voters want stricter policy in some form.”

Emily attributes the growing attention partly to the way far-right parties have long framed migration and partly to the greater visibility and impact of migrants on Europeans’ daily lives. She recalls regional German mayors telling Berlin last year that they were being overwhelmed by the influx of arrivals and lacked the resources to take care of them.

Faced with calls for stricter policies, politicians on the left and center-left must figure out how to respond to voter concerns while sticking to their principles and respecting migrants’ rights, she says. “It’s a really tricky balance to strike right now.”

Outside the EU in Turkey, Joshua Levkowitz reported on Syrian communities in exile as an ICWA fellow from 2021 to 2023. The EU has designated Turkey a safe third country, meaning most asylum seekers arriving from there are rejected as inadmissible even though human rights organizations report that the Turkish authorities have arbitrarily arrested, detained and deported hundreds of refugees back to Syria.

Joshua, who is currently working on a series of research and writing projects, says that of the push factors driving Syrians to attempt dangerous crossings to Europe, the main reason is economic. “The weakened Turkish economy disproportionately punishes refugees who have difficulty securing proper jobs,” he says. “The process to get work permits is taxing, and it blocks refugees from getting basic assistance from the EU, while employers want cheap, off-the-books labor.”

Although many Syrians hoped the conclusion of Turkey’s 2023 elections would usher in a period of calm, Joshua reports that there has actually been an uptick in detentions and deportations since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election. That has been another push factor.

Syrians have learned that a second passport is key for any prospect of long-term stability, and the pathway to Turkish citizenship is largely closed, barring their making major investments in the country. “While many are wary of the potential effects either the far-right or progressive agendas will have on them and their children,” Joshua says, “they see Europe as their best hope to get a second passport, which can help them either live a more stable life in Europe or relocate to another Middle Eastern country down the line once they can enter on a non-Syrian passport.”

He describes recently hearing a Syrian friend in Germany say Syrians are getting citizenship there before moving to Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which are more affordable and aligned with social values they hope to teach their children.

Meanwhile, the EU has tripled Frontex officers in Bulgaria to stem migration flows from Turkey ahead of the county’s joining Europe’s free-travel Schengen Zone last week. Italy is pursuing a controversial agreement to send its asylum seekers to processing centers in Albania while their claims are being reviewed. And Denmark has revoked the residence permits of some 150 Syrian nationals, claiming Damascus and other provinces are safe for their return. Still, refugees find their chances in Europe preferable to Turkey or Lebanon, where they may be forcibly returned without an appeals process.

In an open letter to the EU, over 50 human rights groups criticized the latest reforms for “perpetuating discriminatory practices within the very structures meant to uphold justice and protection for all.” Amnesty International says the new pact builds on recent deals with Albania, Libya, Tunisia and Turkey to further externalize border control and outsource the new reality that migrants keep coming in record numbers.

Top photo: Daily food deliveries at a refugee camp in northern Greece in August 2016