1.3.2. Understanding European migration

Worldwide, there was an estimated 65.6 million persons-of-concern according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) at the start of 2017. These included:

  • •22.5 million refugees, persons in refugee-like situations, and returnees
  • 40.3 million internally displaced persons and returnees
  • 2.8 million asylum-seekers
  • 10 million stateless persons
  • 870,740 other persons-of-concern.

The UNHCR estimated that there were 33.9 million persons-of-concern to the agency in 2010, so there has been a rapid increase in recent years of the number of dispossessed people seeking help. This number reached its high-point in the summer of 2015. Since then, Europe has struggled to cope with the arrival of around 1.5 million people by sea, and there has been a change in the pattern of migration, whose origins have shifted from Eastern Europe and Asia to Africa.

In an effort to stem this flow, many European countries have tightened their policies and borders. In 2016, the European Union forged a controversial ‘one in, one out’ deal with Turkey to stop the tide of migrants and refugees fleeing to the continent from the Middle East. And, in 2017, Italy adopted an aggressive approach to halting migration across the Mediterranean from North Africa, and restricting non-governmental organisations operating off the country's coast.

Of those of concern to the UNHCR, 44% are children. That means that more than 15 million children around the world are suffering from the consequences of war, persecution, or environmental catastrophe, resulting in displacement from their homes, families, and communities.

The conflict in Syria continues to be the biggest driver of migration. But the on-going violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, abuses in Eritrea, as well as poverty in Kosovo*, are also leading people to look for new lives elsewhere.

Figure 1 summarises the pattern of asylum-seeking by country
  • Figure 1 summarises the pattern of asylum-seeking by country.  
  • Figure 1: Top ten origins of people applying for asylum in the European Union

The reception of migrant and refugee groups is an issue which faces all EU Member States. Most have become the final destination of new flows of migrants, including economic migrants, asylum applicants and people who have been forced to leave their country because of a combination of factors (e.g. social deprivation, political instability, violation of human rights).

However, while some Western European countries (such as the UK, Germany and France) have had a longer experience of developing mechanisms and policies for integrating migrants and refugees into their societies, others (see Figure 2, below) are facing a new and unfamiliar challenge.

In fact, six of the ten countries accepting the most permanent immigrants in the world are in the European Union, led by Germany and the UK. Other states, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe, such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Hungary, have historically been known as providers of labour migrants. For these states the influx of economic migrants and asylum applicants in such numbers is a recent phenomenon.

Figure 2: Immigrants into European countries
  • Figure 2: Immigrants into European countries

Although not all of those arriving in Europe choose to claim asylum, many do. Germany received the highest number of new asylum applications in 2015 (476,000 in total), although many more people have arrived in the country (German officials estimate that more than a million had been counted in Germany's ‘EasyPASS’ system). Hungary moved into second place for asylum applications, as more migrants made the journey overland through Greece and the Western Balkans.

Figure 3: Asylum claims in Europe
  • Figure 3: Asylum claims in Europe
  • Figure 4 shows the number of asylum applications as a proportion of European countries’ populations. The data emphasises the scale of the policy challenge to a country like Hungary. 
Asylum applications per 100,000 local population, 2015

Figure 4: Asylum applications per 100,000 local population, 2015

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSC 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence. 

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