Interview with Gustavo de la Orden: Low asylum acceptance rates in Spain and criminalisation of migration

Entrevista a Gustavo de la Orden

22 May 2023

Bilbao Campus

In a recent interview with the La Opinión de A Coruña newspaper, Gustavo de la Orden Bosch, researcher at the University of Deusto’s Pedro Arrupe Human Rights Institute, shared his views on the asylum situation in Spain and the increasing criminalisation of migration. The researcher participated in the Public criminology and anti-punitive debates conference at the Law Faculty in La Coruña, where he presented a paper on the criminalisation of asylum seekers.

As De la Orden explained, Spain has experienced a low acceptance rate of asylum applications over the years, despite receiving one of the highest numbers of applications among EU countries. As he noted, in 2022, only Malta and Cyprus had lower recognition rates, at 14% and 6.5% respectively, while in Spain it was 16.5%. In recent years, take-up has ranged from 10% to 15%, peaking at 20%. On the other hand, Estonia has the highest recognition rate in Europe, and countries such as the Netherlands (82%), Germany (50%) and Belgium (45%) also far outstrip Spain. Even countries with similar characteristics to Spain, both in terms of geography and social and economic background, such as Greece and Italy, have higher recognition rates (50% and 28%, respectively).

The researcher attributes these low acceptance rates to several factors. First, he pointed out the particular nature of Spain's borders and the nationality of asylum seekers, who are mostly from Latin American countries and arrive in the country by air. As these countries are considered safe, applicants are often denied the likelihood of being in danger, which makes it difficult to justify the need for international protection. Furthermore, De la Orden pointed to the criminalisation of migration and border closure policies, which limit regular access to the asylum process. Although it is formally possible to apply for asylum at embassies, in practice there are many difficulties in accessing international protection from outside Spain.

When asked whether the low take-up is due to a lack of resources or to a deliberate attempt to make the procedures more difficult, De la Orden argued that this is largely due to asylum and migration policies, which are a problem not only in Spain, but throughout the European Union and internationally. Adequate channels for accessing asylum from outside countries have not been foreseen, and migration policies, especially in the countries in the global north, have become very restrictive since the early 21st century. As a result, both economic migrants and those in need of international protection find it very difficult to enter and gain recognition in receiving countries.

On the other hand, with regard to the criminalisation of migration, De la Orden explained that it concerns the combination of migration and criminal policies. This trend, which emerged in the early 21st century in the United States and then spread to the European Union, involves combining Aliens Law and Criminal Law. The researcher pointed out that there is a formal criminalisation that entails the creation of exclusive offences for migrants, such as irregular entry, which is not considered a crime in Spain, but it is in other EU countries. Moreover, there are criminal sanctions that apply only to migrants, such as deportation, and offences that anyone can incur when dealing with migrants. In the European Union, assistance to irregular migrants during their entry, transit or stay in a Member State is criminalised.

There is a material aspect of criminalisation that refers to discourses, narratives and policy approaches that associate migration with criminality. In this regard, administrative law is applied to regulate migration, and criminal law is used to restrict fundamental rights such as life and freedom of movement. In recent years, migration laws in many countries, including Spain, have incorporated mechanisms in administrative legislation that affect these rights.

Overall, the researcher highlighted the need to rethink migration and asylum policies both in Spain and the European Union to ensure respect for the fundamental rights of asylum seekers and migrants in general.