Role of the European Union

There are approximately a million recognised refugees living in the European Union. They represent 7% of the world total and are equivalent to 0.2% of the population of the 28 member states.  

But in a scenario where the number of people forcibly displaced continues to grow daily in the world, in 2017 only half the number of people applied for international protection in EU countries compared to the previous year. This can be explained by the fact that, with controls strengthened and border management transferred to neighbouring countries, a large proportion of these people have become trapped in their countries of origin and transit countries.

European Union

Asylum figures for the European Union in 2017

649,855 new

973,330 decisions

538,000 people

534,303 applications
turned down

927,300 people
waiting for a reply**

Source: Eurostat.

  • * Decisions taken at first instance.

There were 650,000 applications for international protection in the EU in 2017. This was just over half the number recorded in 2016.

Strengthened control of its external borders and lack of regulated arrival routes in the European Union has left a large proportion of people trapped in their countries or origin and transit countries, and they are forced to put themselves at the mercy of mafias and follow dangerous routes. 

Between 2015 and 2016, more than 2.3 million people entered or tried to enter EU territory as irregular migrants, almost double the figure for the 2009-2014 period, according to data provided by Frontex, the European agency for controlling external borders, and the European Commission. The UNHCR estimates that over a million people arrived in the EU by sea.

By contrast, in 2017, numbers had dropped to 204,700, the lowest figure recorded over the last four years. The number of illegal entries decreased in three of the main routes for entering the continent: the Western Balkans route; the Easter Mediterranean route (with its destination in Greece) and, to a lesser extent, the Central Mediterranean route (which leads to Italy).

Only the Spanish coasts recorded an upturn in 2017, through the Eastern Mediterranean route, with over 23,000 illegal immigrants, twice the number from 2016. All this indicates that the Mediterranean will continue to be the main arrival route to the EU in 2018, and one of the points where more deaths are recorded: between 2015 and 2017, according to the IOM, at least 14,652 people died in the Mediterranean. 

Most of the people who have requested protection from EU countries come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Eritrea and Albania, and are fleeing from armed conflicts, violence, oppression and human rights’ violations. Others leave behind natural disasters, hunger and poverty.

The European Union is the most prosperous political block on the planet, although it has reacted to the refugee humanitarian crisis by sealing its borders, negotiating meagre quotas that have not been met and by allocating financial aid to humanitarian programmes and assistance, above all for countries sharing borders with Syria.


Political asylum Click to unfold the content

The EU countries are signatories to a long list of laws that mean they are obliged to accept and offer adequate protection to refugees and guarantee the rights of all migrants, regardless of the reasons for their displacement.

The European Union has been implementing the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) since 1999, to harmonise legislation, apply similar criteria to the processing and assessing of asylum requests and attend to both asylum seekers and people granted protection, in order to ensure their safety, decent reception conditions and access to health, education and social services, residence permits and work permits.

Some member states, including Spain, have not fully incorporated these into their national legislation, which why the European Commission started proceedings against them in 2015 for breach of regulations. But differences persist and refugees receive different treatment, depending on where they apply for protection.

CEAS also has a common database of asylum-seekers' fingerprints (Eurodac) which is used to decide which country is responsible for processing the application. That means when a refugee travels across several countries seeking refuge, one of those states may deport them to the first one they arrived at, usually one of the border countries.

The "Dublin system", named after the convention that launched it, affects an average of about 50,000 cases a year. This takes into account the family unit, meaning the state responsible is the one that the applicant's relatives already live in rather than the one that the applicant prefers .

The European Union distinguishes asylum seekers from refugees. The former are those who ask for international protection, while the latter are those who obtain it. To reach their goal, asylum seekers have to go through a long procedure, which varies in length from one country to another, and prove they had to abandon their country of origin because of a danger to life and limb, something that is not always easy to show. States award two forms of protection: the status of refugee and subsidiary protection. Some countries also allow people to stay for humanitarian reasons.

Asylum data Click to unfold the content

According to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), there was a significant reduction in the number of EU asylum applications in 2017: 706,913 asylum applications were recorded in EU countries, representing a 43% drop compared to 2016. This is the second year running with fewer asylum applications, following the unprecedented number of arrivals seen between 2015 and 2016.

Most EU asylum-seekers came from Syria (108,040), Iraq (52,625) and Afghanistan (49,280), followed by nationals from Pakistan, Eritrea, Albania, Bangladesh, Guinea and Iran. Also notable, is the increase in the number of asylum-seekers from Georgia and Venezuela.

In fact, Venezuela was the country with the largest increase in number of applications in 2017. Until 2014, some hundred Venezuelans a year had sought asylum in the EU, but the number has quickly risen since then, reaching 12,020 in 2017, and Venezuela is now sixteenth on the list of the main countries of origin of asylum-seekers.

The main countries where people are requesting asylum are Germany, with 222,560 recorded applications, followed by Italy (128,850) and France (99,330).

Germany, however, while remaining at the head for the sixth year running, has seen a 70% drop in the number of asylum applications compared to 2016. The fall was seen in all asylum-seeking nationalities, with the exception of nationals from Turkey and Guinea.

Hungary and Bulgaria also recorded considerable drops in application numbers, 88% in the former and 81% in the latter.

The number of applications for international protection fell by 42% in Austria, one of the member states with the harshest migratory policies.

The main beneficiaries were Syrian citizens (33% of the total), followed by Afghans and Iraqis.

Emergency measures Click to unfold the content

The European Commission proposed two emergency mechanisms for involving member states in the refugee crisis in May 2015: relocation quotas and resettlement quotas. These must be achieved in two years. The former related to people who had already managed to reach the European Union and were in Italy and Greece. The latter refered to people who had sought protection in countries sharing borders with Syria, especially in refugee camps in Turkey, Libanon and Jordan.

A total of 160,000 were divided up among member states in the case of the former, and 20,000 in the case of the latter. That distribution was calculated according to the population and GDP of each one, adjusted for their employment rate and asylum effort in the previous five years. Germany took on the most, followed by France and Spain. Each country received 6,000 euros in compensation for each person relocated.

The quotas applied to those refugees from third countries that had an average European recognition rate of 75%, then Syria, Eritrea and Iraq.

The two programmes ended in failure in the autumn of 2017. All in all, and according to data from the European Commission, close to 30,000 were relocated and 17,000 resettled, representing a mere 25% of the total. 

Finally, 28 EU countries reached a new general agreement on migration in the summer of 2018. This establishes the creation of centres controlled inside the EU which will separate refugees from those deemed migrants for “economic reasons”. The latter will be returned to their countries of origin, whereas asylum seekers will be relocated to EU Member States which voluntarily offer to take them in. Every country will decide "voluntarily" whether or not it opens one of these establishments, putting an end to mandatory distribution quotas and satisfying those member states that refuse to receive a single refugee or irregular migrant.

Facts and figures of the crisis in the European Union

Economic migrants 'versus' refugees

This is a refugee crisis, not an "economic migrant" crisis. Eighty-four per cent of the more than one million people who reached the European Union by sea in 2015 came from the world's ten main refugee countries of origin, according to UNHCR data, and the proportion was much the same in 2017. Most fled Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria and all are eligible for applying for and obtaining international protection.

Illegal 'versus' legal arrivals

EU arrival routes are illegal because EU legislation does not provide for any legal ones. The absence of safe legal routes has turned the Mediterranean into an enormous grave. A report entitled “Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants", the first global study of its kind, highlights that 8,189 people died worldwide in 2016 while attempting to enter another country through irregular border crossings, and that close to half of these deaths (3,832) were recorded to have been in the Mediterranean.

Irregular migrants 'versus' asylum seekers

The number of illegal migrants has dropped considerably over the last few years in the EU: while the number of people “without papers” was 2.2 million in 2015, it was 984,000 in 2016 and 618,780 in 2017, according to Eurostat. Germany is the country with the highest number of illegal foreign residents (156,710), although it is followed very closely in that respect by France (115,085), Greece (68,110) and Spain (44,625).

Number of refugees 'versus' refugees per capita

A country as small as Lebanon, a third of the size of Catalonia and with less than half its GDP per capita, took in 164 refugees in 2017 for every thousand inhabitants (250, if Palestinians are taken account of). Jordan, 71; Turkey, 43, Uganda, 32 and Chad, 28. Sweden (24), and Malta (19) are the only European countries in this classification

Emergency 'versus' paralysis

In 2015, EU countries pledged to relocate 160,000 refugees in two years, to ease the burden on arrival countries, especially Italy and Greece. It was an emergency measure which EU member states failed to meet by over 70%. While some countries, such as Germany at one end, took in 10,825 refugees that had been arriving from Greece and Italy since 2015, others, such as Orban's Hungary, refused to take in any at all. 

The reception cost 'versus' the cost of deportations

The cost of receiving 160,000 refugees relocated from Italy and Greece is nearly a million euros. Yet the EU countries - along with Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein - spend that annually on deporting thousands of people, according to the calculations of the journalists' consortium behind the Migrant Files.

  • Asylum applications in the European Union
  • Positive and negative resolutions in the European Union
  • Arrivals through the coast to the EU
Asylum applications in the European Union
Positive and negative resolutions in the European Union
Arrivals through the coast to the EU