How Europe welcomes its refugees varies widely

Karl Ritter
Associated Press

Malmo, Sweden – — The bleary-eyed travelers arriving in Malmo’s glass-and-steel train station agreed on one thing: Sweden was a better place to go than Denmark, which has cut welfare benefits for refugees.

But many said Finland was even better.

“Why Finland? I tell you, because they give us the documents faster,” said Ghanem, a 23-year-old Iraqi, who like many making the journey declined to give his full name. They are worried about being identified by authorities and prevented from going to their preferred destinations. “Sweden, Germany, they will take one year, two years.”

Though the 28-nation European Union has common rules for how to receive asylum-seekers, the benefits provided once they arrive vary widely from one country to the next.

Greece, the European entry point for more than 200,000 migrants this year, has been so overwhelmed that it can’t even provide basic services like housing and food. Italy’s reception conditions are also straining under a constant stream of sea arrivals from North Africa, while Hungary’s hostility toward migrants jolts them to get out of the country as soon as they can.

Most are aiming to reach wealthier countries in northern Europe, particularly Germany and Sweden, which stand out for their efforts to offer a generous welcome. However, German authorities say the expectations of people arriving are sometimes unrealistic.

“Germany isn’t just the country of milk and honey, where everything you would want flies into your mouth like a fried pigeon,” German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer said last week.

EU rules require member states to ensure “a dignified standard of living” for asylum-seekers. That includes housing, food, clothing, a daily allowance, and access to public health care, education and the job market while their claim is processed, which can take up to a year or more.

Many countries don’t live up to those standards — the EU’s executive commission has 32 infringement cases open against member states. Those who do apply them in different ways.

In France, asylum-seekers can work if they haven’t received a decision after nine months. In Germany they can work after three months and in Sweden from day one, but only if they are deemed likely to receive asylum. Britain, which is exempt from the EU asylum rules, doesn’t normally allow asylum-seekers to work at all.

The quality of migrant housing also varies. Spain provides asylum-seekers shelter at refugee centers, but spending cuts and an increase in migrants means some of them are sleeping in the streets, said Cristina Manzanedo of Spanish human rights group Pueblos Unidos.

Italy and France also keep asylum-seekers in large-scale refugee centers, while Sweden places them in apartments, hostels or camp ground cabins across the country.

More than 80,000 people applied for asylum in Sweden last year — the highest per capita in the EU — and officials expect a similar number this year. Only Germany is seeing higher total arrivals, with 200,000 in 2014 and up to five times as many expected this year.

Hungary declares emergency

Declaring a state of emergency, Hungary sealed off its southern border with Serbia on Tuesday and detained those trying to enter illegally, aiming to shut down the flow of migrants pouring in. Chaos ensued at the border, as hundreds of migrants piled up in a no man’s land, and Serbian officials reacted with outrage.

Stuck for an unknown amount of time on a strip of road between the two countries’ checkpoints, those fleeing violence in their homelands pitched tents and settled in. But frustrations were on the rise.