Why European asylum policies should account for refugees’ preferences


Philipp Lutz, David Kaufmann & Anna Stünzi

Following a surge of refugee arrivals in Europe in 2015, the numbers of new arrivals have significantly declined and the issue of asylum has ceased to dominate the political agenda. Nevertheless, the European Union remains deeply divided on how to establish responsibility-sharing among its member states and how to reform the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). Despite intense political debates, no effective cooperation among European states for the common provision of humanitarian protection has been established. The existing academic literature explains this cooperation failure mainly by examining the willingness and capacities of European countries to engage in an effective cooperation in the protection of refugees. We, however, argue that the understanding of responsibility-sharing in the provision of humanitarian protection requires going beyond the state-centric view, and to take account of the strategic role of refugees, too. Policy-makers and academics should perceive refugees as actors with own rational strategies, motivations and aspirations to improve their life prospects. In our article, we bring together public good theory with public policy literature and formal modelling to develop a more comprehensive model on the provision of humanitarian protection.

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Refugee protection is an obligation under international law but it leaves open which states should bear what share of that responsibility. Following the logic of public good theory when some countries do not admit refugees, they increase the responsibility for the other countries to protect refugees. The admission of refugees, on the other hand, provides benefits to all countries such as a stable political order, public safety and the securing of human rights. Due to these public good characteristics, countries have incentives to free-ride on the protection efforts of other states. Accordingly, the provision of humanitarian protection is a common European public good: protecting refugees contributes to the normative power of the EU as a stronghold of human rights and liberal democracy and it ensures the functional requirements for the free movement of people and the border-free travel area,, as main institutional pillars of the EU.

The common perspective is that the provision of international public goods could be achieved if there was effective responsibility-sharing between states. Thus, the provision of humanitarian protection depends solely on the willingness of states to contribute. How refugees behave is largely absent from the analysis. Following the public policy literature, we argue that policies can only achieve their objectives if the relevant target groups comply with those policies or behave in ways that are consistent with the enunciated objectives of the policy. Empirical research shows that refugees have rational preferences about the country where they want to seek protection and that they are willing to accept substantial risks and costs to submit an asylum request in their preferred destination country. Only in exceptional cases do refugees want to stay in the country of first entry, as assigned by the existing Dublin Regulation. Thus, the current asylum system sets disincentives to comply for their main target group and is therefore designed to fail: refugees are people with credible motivations to comply or not comply with European asylum policies. The persistent non-compliance by refugees is a result of strategic behaviour of individuals maximizing their life prospects. It is therefore not sufficient when states establish cooperation in order to provide humanitarian protection. Only mutual compliance between states and refugees results in the provision of the public good.

Our findings have important implications for policymaking in the European Union. The very idea that refugees should be able to exert any choice is a central blind spot in the current political and policy debates. Our research suggests that the agency and preferences of refugees should be incorporated into the analysis and design of international asylum regimes. We demonstrate that efforts to increase the enforcement of state compliance (i.e. through sanctions) or the enforcement of refugee compliance (i.e. through securitisation) are unlikely to overcome the current problems of the CEAS. As long as the responsibility allocation opposes the fundamental interests of the refugees seeking protection, the perspectives for an effective provision of humanitarian protection remain bleak.

This piece draws on the article Humanitarian Protection as a European Public Good: The Strategic Role of States and Refugees published in the Journal of Common Market Studies (JCMS).

Philipp Lutz

Philipp Lutz is a  post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science and International Relations of the University of Geneva (Switzerland) and a Fellow of the Swiss national science program nccr on the move. He obtained his PhD in Political Science from University of Bern in 2019. His main research interest is in understanding the political consequences of international migration and covers comparative politics as well as international governance.



David Kaufmann

 David Kaufmann is Assistant Professor of Spatial Development and Urban Policy at ETH Zürich. He is a policy scholar with an interest in urban studies, planning and migration studies.







Anna Stünzi is a doctoral candidate at ETH Zurich at the Center for Economic Research. She studied psychology and economics at the universities of Zurich and Copenhagen. Anna Stünzi’s thesis covers different topics of climate change mitigation policy, mainly focusing on the empirical analysis of feedback effects from policy announcements. Besides academic research, Anna Stünzi is president of foraus, a Swiss think tank on foreign politics.