The recent debate about asylum in Europe has been characterised by a concern about the high number of asylum applications (compared to the mid-1980s) and their highly unequal distribution among countries. In Western Europe the absolute number of asylum applications rose sharply from about 150.000 in 1985 to more than 600.000 in 1992 before falling again, with ca 300.000 applications being recorded in 2000. Average annual asylum applications per head of population have been more than ten times higher in some of the most popular destination countries such as Switzerland and Sweden compared to the least popular ones such as Spain and Portugal. The relative distribution of asylum seekers across Europe has been quite volatile over the years, exemplified by the rapid rise of applications in the UK in recent years. Increasingly, differences in the relative restrictiveness of countries’ asylum regimes over time have come to be regarded as one of the principal reasons for disparities in asylum burdens and their variation over time. According to this view, host countries with a high relative number of applications will try to make their asylum policies more restrictive and other host countries will, as a result, become more attractive destination countries. This has sparked a heated debate about whether countries in which asylum applications have increased in recent years represent a ‘soft touch’ for asylum seekers and economic migrants using the asylum route alike.1 It has also raised concerns that European countries as a result of the so-called ‘soft touch’ logic have become engaged in the competitive downgrading of refugee protection standards. In order to achieve a more stable and equitable distribution of asylum burdens and prevent a slide toward the lowest common denominator in protection standards, policy makers in Europe have turned to policy-harmonisation at the European level to achieve these objectives. Policy convergence in the field of asylum is seen as the key toward more equitable burden-sharing and less competition for the most effective deterrence measures
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