A look into the European Union’s growing refugee population

A look into the European Union’s growing refugee population
Sara Weber, Deseret News

The European Union, Norway and Switzerland received a record-breaking 1.3 million asylum applications in 2015.

According to a study released Aug. 2 by Pew Research Center, the EU processed more than double its previous annual record of 700,000 requests after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union collapsed.

Phillip Connor, a research associate at Pew, said the findings prove that the magnitude of applications is “large when put into context of what has happened in the past 30 years.”

“It represents 1-in-10 of all asylum applications in Europe since 1985,” he said. “That’s such a large number in a short span of time.”

Connor and Pew researchers analyzed data from Eurostat — Europe’s equivalent of the U.S. Census — to look into the size and patterns of the EU’s most recent migrant wave. The study looks at data from the 28 countries in the European Union pre-Brexit, as well as Norway and Switzerland.

Countries of origin

The research shows that close to half of all refugees that traveled to the EU, Norway and Switzerland came from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, a fact that didn’t surprise Connor.

He said what did surprise him was the number of European migrants from countries like Kosovo, Albania and Ukraine, who were seeking protection within other European nations.

“Certainly, many people have heard of these countries as being large origins of asylum seekers, but some people may not realize that a fifth of all asylum seekers in 2015 were of European origin,” Connor said.

And those of European origin had a harder time finding protection in the EU. Ninety-seven percent of applicants from Syria were granted protection status, compared with 5 percent from Kosovo and Albania.

Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, the assistant director for the International Program at the Migration Policy Institute, attributed the disparities to the fact that Middle Eastern refugees “fit a very traditional definition of refugee.”

“What’s happening is that there are some pretty black-and-white legal categories into which asylum seekers have to fit,” Banulescu-Bogdan said. “However, there are complex motivations and a lot of shades of gray.”

Destination countries

The countries that most refugees traveled to in 2015 were Germany, Hungary and Sweden.

Germany, which has processed the most applications since 2012, processed 442,000 applications — or one-third of all EU application — in 2015.

The study notes that this could be because of the country’s decision to waive an EU rule requiring refugees apply for protection in the first country they enter. But Banulescu-Bogdan noted that Germany has also been more vocal about welcoming refugees, ultimately creating a “chain-migration effect” that brought friends and families of refugees to the country.

“Germany has one of the strongest economies in Europe … and it really presented itself as a welcoming country for newcomers,” Banulescu-Bogdan said.

But in terms of refugees accepted in relation to population, Hungary accepted the most. While the average number of asylum applicants European nations received was 250 per 100,000 residents, Hungary received 1,770 per 100,000 — an occurrence Banulescu-Bogdan called an “accident of geography.”

“Hungary is not a traditional destination,” Banulescu-Bogdan said. “It has a right-wing government that is openly hostile to immigration, but it’s in the middle of the Western Balkan route that migrants end up taking between Greece and Germany and Sweden.”

A previous Pew study found that most Hungarians were unhappy with the influx of asylum seekers. Seventy-two percent of Hungarians polled said they have an “unfavorable view of Muslims in (their) country,” and more than 40 percent said growing diversity makes their country a worse place to live.

France and the UK, on the other hand, received well below the average with 110 and 60 applications, respectively, despite polls that show the two countries have more welcoming attitudes toward Muslim refugees and a diversified population.


According to the study, 42 percent of asylum seekers were men between the ages of 18 and 34.

More notable, however, was the significant spike in unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. Pew reports there were 198,500 unaccompanied minors who sought protection in the EU, Norway and Switzerland during the past eight years, and nearly half of them applied in the last year.

Banulescu-Bogdan said this spike in unaccompanied minors is likely due to a rise in human smuggling and trafficking.

“Children traveling alone are usually doing so either at the behest of their families, or as victims of human traffickers or smugglers,” Banulescu-Bogdan said. “It’s a symptom of the desperation people feel in their countries of origin.”

Impacts on population and policy

While in the EU as a whole, the foreign-born population increased less than half of a percentage point, countries like Sweden, Hungary and Austria saw a 1 percent rise in foreign-born residents in 2015 alone. For comparison, it took the United States 10 years to reach that point.

“That’s one of the interesting impacts of this movement,” Connor said. “You think of it compared to the U.S. … this is a significant jump for these smaller European countries.”

That significant jump, Connor said, has lead to some harsh feelings toward European governments, as proven by the previous survey. Banulescu-Bogdan said this has already led to significant policy changes in Europe and will continue to in the future.

“There has been a steady loss of trust across the whole of Europe in how governments are managing migration,” she said. “People need to see that policies put in place are working in order to have any confidence in the system.”

Email: sweber@deseretnews.com; Twitter: @sarapweber

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