Visualizing asylum statistics

Note: of potential interest to R users for the dynamic Google chart generated via googleVis in R and discussed towards the end of the post. Here you can go directly to the graph.

02alessandro-penso
An emergency refugee center, opened in September 2013 in an abandoned school in Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo by Alessandro Penso, Italy, OnOff Picture. First prize at World Press Photo 2013 in the category General News (Single).

The tragic lives of asylum-seekers make for moving stories and powerful photos. When individual tragedies are aggregated into abstract statistics, the message gets harder to sell. Yet, statistics are arguably more relevant for policy and provide for a deeper understanding, if not as much empathy, than individual stories. In this post, I will offer a few graphs that present some of the major trends and patterns in the numbers of asylum applications and asylum recognition rates in Europe over the last twelve years. I focus on two issues: which European countries take the brunt of the asylum flows, and the link between the application share that each country gets and its asylum recognition rate.

Asylum applications and recognition rates
Before delving into the details, let’s look at the big picture first. Each year between 2001 and 2012, 370,000 people on average have applied for asylum protection in one of the member states of the European Union (plus Norway and Switzerland). As can be seen from Figure 1, the number fluctuates between 250,000 and 500,000 per year, and there is no clear trend. Altogether, during this 12-year period, approximately 4.5 million people have applied for asylum, which makes slightly less than one percent of the total EU population. Of course, this figure only tracks people who have actually made it to the asylum centers and filed an application – all potential refugees who have perished on the way, or have arrived but been denied the right of formal application, or have remained clandestine are not counted.

asylum_applications_small

Figure 1 also shows the annual number of persons actually recognized as ‘refugees’ under the terms of the Geneva Convention by the European governments: a status which grants considerable rights and protection. This number is quite lower with an average of around 40.000 per year (in the EU+ as a whole) which makes for less than half-a-million in total for the 12 years between 2001 and 2012. While the overall recognition rate remains between 7% and 14%, there is considerable variation between the different European states both in the share from the asylum flows they receive, and in the national asylum recognition rates.

Who takes the brunt of the asylum burden?
Both the asylum flows and the recognition rates are in fact distributed highly unequally across the continent, and in a way that cannot be completely accounted for by the wealth of destination countries, former (colonial) ties between asylum sources and destinations, nor geographical distance. To compare the shares of the total European pool of asylum applications and recognitions that a destination country gets, I create the so-called ‘burden coefficient’. The ‘burden coefficient’ compares the actual share of asylum applications a country received in a year to its ‘fair’ share which is defined as its relative share of the annual  total EU+ GDP. Simply put, if a country accounts for 10% of the European GDP, it would have been expected to receive 10% of all asylum applications filed in Europe that year. Taking account of GDP adjusts the raw asylum application shares in view of the expectation that richer and more populous countries should bear a proportionally higher share of the total European asylum ‘burden’ than poorer and smaller states.

asylum_applications_burden

Figure 2 shows the (logged) burden coefficient for asylum application shares for each EU+ country, averaged over the period 2010-2012. The solid line at zero indicates an asylum applications share perfectly proportional to a  country’s GDP share (a ‘fair’ burden). Countries with positive values receive a higher share of all applications than implied by their GDP level, and countries with negative values receive a lower than their implied share. (The dotted lines show where a country that is doing twice as much / twice as little as expected would be). Clearly, Spain, Portugal, Italy and many (but not all) of the East European countries underdeliver while Cyprus, Malta, Greece, and several West European states (notably Sweden, Belgium, and Norway) take a disproportionately high  share of the total pool of asylum applications filed in Europe over the last few years. Note that these comparisons already take into account (correct for) the fact that most of the Southern and Eastern European countries are poorer (have lower GDP) than the ones in the Western and Northern parts of the continent.

asylum_recognitions_burden

The picture does not change much when we focus on actual asylum recognitions (under the terms of the Geneva Convention) instead of applications. Figure 3 shows the burden coefficient (again averaged over 2010-2012) for full status refugee recognitions in Europe. The country ranking is similar with a few important exception – Greece grants much fewer asylum recognitions than expected even after we account for the state of its economy; Austria and Switzerland join the ranks of states which do much more than their implied share; and, sadly, many more countries in fact underdeliver when it comes to full refugee status grants. (Note that some states offer alternative protection to those denied the full ‘Geneva Convention’ status but the forms and level of this protection differs significantly across the continent).

Are asylum application shares responsive to the recognition rate?
Given these rather significant discrepancies across Europe in how many asylum applications countries get, and how much protection they offer, it is natural to ask whether the applications shares and the recognition rates are in fact related. Do asylum seekers flock at the gates of the European states which are most generous in their recognition policy? Do low recognition rates deter potential refugees from applying in certain countries? Can the strictness of asylum policy be an effective policy tool shaping future application flows? A comprehensive statistical analysis shows that while application shares and recognition rates are associated, their responsiveness to each other is rather weak. Simply put, manipulating the recognition rates is unlikely to have big practical effects on the asylum application share a country receives, and changes in the applications rates only weakly affect state recognition rates. The details of the analysis are rather technical and can be found here, but a dynamic visualization can help illustrate the patterns.

The dynamic interactive chart linked here shows the relationship between asylum applications and asylum recognition rates for each EU+ country over the last 12 years (the chart cannot be embedded in this post due to WordPress policy, but there is a screenshot below). When you press ‘Play’ each dot traces the experience of one country over time. You can choose to observe all, select a single state to focus upon, or tick a couple to compare their experiences.

dynamic-asylum-1

A movement of a dot (and the trace in leaves) in a horizontal direction means that the number of asylum applications received by a country increases while the recognition rates remains the same. Similarly, a vertical move implies a change in the recognition rate but a stable asylum application flow. A trajectory that follows a diagonal suggests a link between applications and recognition rates.

When paused, the state of the chart at each year shows the cross-sectional association between applications and recognition rates: it is easy to see that there is a (rather stable) weakly-strong positive relationship. But the trajectories of individual countries over time do not suggest that there is a temporal link between the two aspects of asylum policy for particular countries. For example, in the UK between 2001 and 2004 both the recognition rates and the applications fall, which would suggest strong responsiveness, but then the recognition rate moves up from 4% to almost 30% without any significant increase in applications. The trajectory of Denmark (try it out) exhibits something close to a dynamic link with rates depressing applications initially but then when they rise again, applications seem to pick up as well. Of course, asylum flows are driven by many other factors as well, so while suggestive, the patterns in the chart should be interpreted with care.

dynamic-asylum-2

More comprehensive analyses of asylum policy in Europe addressing these questions and more are available in my published articles accessible here and here. The original data comes from the UNHCR annual reports. The dynamic chart is generated using Google Chart Tools through the googleVis library in R, you can find the code here. I found it useful to generate a simple version, adjust the settings manually, and then copy the final settings via the Google Chart’s Advanced Panel back to R.

The evolution of EU legislation (graphed with ggplot2 and R)

During the last half century the European Union has adopted more than 100 000 pieces of legislation. In this presentation I look into the patterns of legislative adoption over time. I tried to create clear and engaging graphs that provide some insight into the evolution of law-making activity: not an easy task given the byzantine nature of policy making in the EU and the complex nomenclature of types of legal acts possible.

The main plot showing the number of adopted directives, regulations and decisions since 1967 is pasted below. There is much more in the presentation. The time series data is available here, as well as the R script used to generate the plots (using ggplot2). Some of the graphs are also available as interactive visualizations via ManyEyes here, here, and here (requires Java). Enjoy.

EU laws over time

Interest groups and the making of legislation

How are the activities of interest groups related to the making of legislation? Does mobilization of interest groups lead to more legislation in the future? Alternatively, does the adoption of new policies motivate interest groups to get active? Together with Dave Lowery, Brendan Carroll and Joost Berkhout, we tackle these questions in the case of the European Union. What we find is that there is no discernible signal in the data indicating that the mobilization of interest groups and the volume of legislative production over time are significantly related. Of course, absence of evidence is the same as the evidence of absence, so a link might still exist, as suggested by theory, common wisdom and existing studies of the US (e.g. here). But using quite a comprehensive set of model specifications we can’t find any link in our time-series sample. The abstract of the paper is below and as always you can find at my website the data, the analysis scripts, and the pre-print full text. One a side-note – I am very pleased that we managed to publish what is essentially a negative finding. As everyone seems to agree, discovering which phenomena are not related might be as important as discovering which phenomena are. Still, there are few journals that would apply this principle in their editorial policy. So cudos for the journal of Interest Groups and Advocacy.

Abstract
Different perspectives on the role of organized interests in democratic politics imply different temporal sequences in the relationship between legislative activity and the influence activities of organized interests.  Unfortunately, lack of data has greatly limited any kind of detailed examination of this temporal relationship.  We address this problem by taking advantage of the chronologically very precise data on lobbying activity provided by the door pass system of the European Parliament and data on EU legislative activity collected from EURLEX.  After reviewing the several different theoretical perspectives on the timing of lobbying and legislative activity, we present a time-series analysis of the co-evolution of legislative output and interest groups for the period 2005-2011. Our findings show that, contrary to what pluralist and neo-corporatist theories propose, interest groups neither lead nor lag bursts in legislative activity in the EU.

Timing is Everything: Organized Interests and the Timing of Legislative Activity
Dimiter Toshkov, Dave Lowery, Brendan Carroll and Joost Berkhout
Interest Groups and Advocacy (2013), vol.2, issue 1, pp.48-70

When ‘just looking’ beats regression

In a draft paper currently under review I argue that the institutionalization of a common EU asylum policy has not led to a race to the bottom with respect to asylum applications, refugee status grants, and some other indicators. The graph below traces the number of asylum applications lodged in 29 European countries since 1997:

My conclusion is that there is no evidence in support of the theoretical expectation of a race to the bottom (an ever-declining rate of registered applications). One of the reviewers insists that I use a regression model to quantify the change and to estimate the uncertainly of the conclusion. While in general I couldn’t agree more that being open about the uncertainty of your inferences is a fundamental part of scientific practice, in this particular case I refused to fit a regression model and calculate standards errors or confidence intervals. Why?

In my opinion, just looking at the graph is convincing that there is no race to the bottom – applications rates have been down and then up again while the institutionalization of a common EU policy has only strengthened over the last decade. Calculating standard errors will be superficial because it is hard to think about the yearly averages as samples from some underlying population. Estimating a regression which would quantify the EU effect would only work if the model is sufficiently good to capture the fundamental dynamics of asylum applications before isolating the EU effect, and there is no such model. But most importantly, I just didn’t feel that a regression coefficient or a standard error will improve on the inference you get by just looking at the graph: applications have been all over the place since the late 1990s and you don’t need a confidence interval to see that! But the issue has bugged me ever since – after all, the reviewer was just asking for what would be the standard way of approaching an empirical question.

Then two days ago I read this blog post by William M. Briggs who (unlike myself) is a professional statistician. After showing that by manipulating the start and end points of a time series you can get any regression coefficient that you want even with randomly generated data, he concludes ‘The lesson is, of course, that straight lines should not be fit to time series.’  But here is the real punch line:

If we want to know if there has been a change from the start to the end dates, all we have to do is look! I’m tempted to add a dozen more exclamation points to that sentence, it is that important. We do not have to model what we can see. No statistical test is needed to say whether the data has changed. We can just look.

But what about hypothesis testing? We need a statistical test to refute a hypothesis, right? Let me quote some more:

It is true that you can look at the data and ponder a “null hypothesis” of “no change” and then fit a model to kill off this straw man. But why? If the model you fit is any good, it will be able to skillfully predict new data…. And if it’s a bad model, why clutter up the picture with spurious, misleading lines?

In the inimitable prose of Prof. Briggs, ‘if you want to claim that the data has gone up, down, did a swirl, or any other damn thing, just look at it!’

The ‘Nobel’ prize for Economics, VAR and Political Science

Yesterday the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel  was awarded to the economists Thomas J. Sargent and Christopher A. Sims “for their empirical research on cause and effect in the macroeconomy” (press-release here, Tyler Cowen presented the laureates here and here). The award for Christopher Sims in particular comes for the development of vector autoregression  – a method for analyzing ‘how the economy is affected by temporary changes in economic policy and other factors’. In fact, the application of vector autoregression (VAR) is not confined to economics and can be used for the analysis of any dynamic relationships.

Unfortunately, despite being developed back in the 1970s, VAR remains somewhat unpopular in political science and public administration (as I learned the hard way trying to publish an analysis that uses VAR to explore the relationship between public opinion and policy output in the EU over time). A quick-and-dirty search for ‘VAR’/’vector autoregression’ in Web of Science [1980-2011] returns 1810 hits under the category Economics and only 52 under Political Science (of which 23 are also filed under Economics). This is the distribution over the last decades:

Time period – Econ/ PolSci
1980-1989 -   13/1
1990-1999 - 406/15
2000-2011 – 1391/36

With all the disclaimers that go with using Web of Science as a data source, the discrepancy is clear.

It remains to be seen whether the Nobel prize for Sims will serve to popularize VAR outside the field of economics.