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According to recent reports in the British press of a speech by Home Secretary Theresa May, hundreds of EU nationals have applied for asylum in Britain in the last 5 years.

To list a few sources, this claim has appeared in the Daily Mail...

In five years 551 people from safe EU countries claimed asylum in UK

...

The Home Secretary will tell the Tory conference in Manchester she is scrapping the ‘absurd’ rules, so claims by EU nationals will be inadmissible unless there are exceptional circumstances

... and on Sky News...

Mrs May also pledged to end the "absurdity" of EU nationals seeking asylum in the UK as she addressed the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.

... and on Politics Home:

Ms May promised to end the "absurdity" of other EU nationals trying to claim asylum here.

...

a few hundred people have attempted this in the past five years

This surprises me. I'm not aware of any widespread persecution or violent conflict within any of the EU member states in the last 5 years. Do these hundreds of asylum applicants really exist, and if so, where are they from, and on what bases have they sought asylum?

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    It seems your source essentially answers your questions, cf. “The claims have no chance of success but, under existing rules, applicants are entitled to a full interview” and “Many of the claimants are from Spain”. To the extent that any of this is accurate, people would typically seek asylum based, indeed, on persecution (incidentally, it does not need to be widespread and it's not enough for it to be widespread, you have to prove that you, personally, are a victim of persecution), which does not mean they really are victim of persecution. – Relaxed Oct 6 '15 at 20:43
  • The most surprising thing about all this is not so much the basis these people may invoke but the purpose of their application. There are many easier ways to stay in Britain as EU citizen than claiming asylum! – Relaxed Oct 6 '15 at 20:46
  • I can see some legitimate reasons for applying for asylum. For instance HBQT people are persecuted in for instance Poland (It's common for parents to push their gay kids into traffic). The Roma people is heavily discriminated against in Romania. – liftarn Oct 19 '15 at 14:14
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I have not been able to find more details on those specific cases but some info on the asylum process may perhaps begin to shed some light on the issue:

  • An application is just that, nothing more. People can claim they are persecuted even when they aren't. Ideally, a country should be able to process applications quickly and reject ludicrous ones even quicker but everybody can apply for asylum and in practice it does take many months for officials to come around interviewing asylum seekers and reaching a decision (it's not easy either, you need people familiar with the law and the situation in the country of origin of the asylum seekers, translators, etc. to conduct those interviews).
  • It certainly makes for good tabloid material because Spain feels like a particularly harmless country and it's in the European Union so closely associated with the UK but applications from citizens of presumably safe countries like the US and Canada are nothing new and probably unavoidable. The standard to be met is that you must personally face persecution and can't count on the protection of your country of origin, not necessarily that you come from a failed state or a place at war.
  • That's even rarer than unsuccessful applications but there is no need to come from a place with widespread persecution to successfully claim asylum. Cases in point: Christoph Meili, a Swiss citizen granted asylum in the US or Denise Harvey, a US citizen granted asylum in Canada. Applications from US or Spanish citizens are exceedingly unlikely to succeed but they are not going to be summarily dismissed based only on the citizenship of the person (or at least that's the case in the UK and many other countries and in international law but the German concept of sicherer Herkunftsstaat basically allows filtering by citizenship).
  • Conversely, coming from a country where there is genuine widespread persecution or civil war is not enough in and of itself to be granted asylum. I have known some Algerian people who had great difficulties getting asylum during the civil war there (e.g. because of some aspect of their biography like having previously worked for the security forces). I also know many people from the DR Congo who apply for asylum but get turned down because they can't prove they come from the east of the country (which is the most unstable region).

Incidentally, that's the most puzzling thing about this story for me. If you come from Congo, you are faced with deportation and claiming asylum is your last option, then I completely get why you would try to make up a story to be able to stay, I would do it myself if I was stuck in this situation. But if you come from Spain you have many easier ways to remain in the UK perfectly legally… And even if you have to leave, coming back is also very easy, legally and practically.

One wild guess is that some of these asylum seekers are people who tried to come under free movement rules, find themselves out of a job and resources or in some sort of special difficulties and see that as a means to remain in Britain and claim some benefits that are otherwise not available to EU citizens (free movement rights are extensive but not absolute).

And adding the numbers for five years gives a stronger impression but we are only talking about 100 cases a year, give or take, so less than half a percent of all asylum applications and perhaps 0.1% of EU citizens migrating to the UK every year. Arguably, 0.5% of anything should not really be treated as news or be worthy of a cabinet minister's time.

More generally, it's a fact of life that a large country like the UK needs a system that can process tens of thousands of asylum applications a year (France or Germany get two or three times as many as the UK, without counting the current wave of people coming to Germany) and be robust to some number of ludicrous applications and other freak cases. And that does cost something, obviously as do the many applications from people who are genuinely in distress.

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    @PointlessSpike "He's explained, directly, the grounds on which they're claiming asylum"* - well, no, unless you count "personally face persecution and can't count on the protection of your country of origin". I'm asking - and I think I was clear on this in the question - where these applicants come from and what specific persecution they claim to face. The answer to that might be "all over the place, all sorts of persecution, there's no pattern", or "90% are French Jews alleging persecution by Muslims", or something totally different, but this answer doesn't touch on such details. – Mark Amery Oct 8 '15 at 14:56
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    @MarkAmery It's clear and I don't claim to have answered it fully, I really don't know. But I wanted to highlight that spurious claims are not unheard off, from the occasional mental patient who feel he is the victim of a conspiracy, to very specific issues in otherwise unproblematic countries (e.g. some US servicemen who didn't want to return to Iraq applied for asylum in Germany) and completely ludicrous applications to stave off deportation. – Relaxed Oct 8 '15 at 15:02
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    So I am not necessarily that surprised and the fact that there is no obvious widespread persecution in a country does not mean that some unusual or even completely imaginary persecution is not the basis for some asylum applications. – Relaxed Oct 8 '15 at 15:06
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    Incidentally, the article suggests that the system kind of works in that those application do get turned down eventually. But the delay for a complete evaluation, possibly some appeal as well means the people in question are allowed to stay in Britain for many months, possibly with some added costs for healthcare, etc. – Relaxed Oct 8 '15 at 15:07
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    @Relaxed, I think they actually charge for non-emergency treatment; citizensadvice.org.uk/healthcare/help-with-health-costs/…. – PointlessSpike Oct 9 '15 at 7:15

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