The arrival of more than 1 million migrants in Europe in 2015 transformed the region’s political landscape. Four years later, the numbers seeking refuge have fallen sharply—even if the rhetoric surrounding the newcomers has not.
European Union data released Thursday showed that the number of first-time asylum seekers in the bloc declined for the fourth straight year. It now stands at 580,800, just above the number that arrived in 2014, the year before the migrant crisis began.
These latest figures are significant not because a semblance of order has been restored to those countries that account for the main source of asylum seekers—Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq remain in various stages of tumult—but because migration remains a potent rallying call for far-right and populist parties that continue to use the issue to mobilize voters ahead of European Parliament elections in May. Additionally, European governments have tightened their rules not only for immigration but also for asylum, resulting in a steep decline in approval rates, according to separate European data.
Still, the numbers released Thursday are unlikely to placate the plurality of Europeans who say they believe immigration is the most important issue facing the bloc. Indeed, the arrival of large numbers of migrants four years ago fostered a belief that EU governments had lost control of the bloc’s borders, bolstering support for parties that until then had occupied the fringes of European politics. That has changed markedly, though: Populist parties are expected to make significant enough gains in the upcoming polls to put a major dent in the four-decade-long electoral dominance of the EU’s centrist parties—a repeat of the pattern seen in an array of national elections across Europe.