17 Jun 2016

Rethinking asylum distribution in the EU: Shall we start with the facts?

Elspeth Guild / Sergio Carrera

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Ten months of what has alternatively been called a "refugee crisis", a "migrant crisis" and a "migrant and asylum crisis" in the EU has fuelled an exceptionally vivid discussion about statistics. All member states are required to provide Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency, with data on immigration and asylum in accordance with a regulation that sets out clear and concise rules on what data must be submitted.[1] The purpose of the regulation is to ensure that the data on migration and asylum the member states provide to Eurostat for publication is comparable across all EU countries.

A number of member states also have other data sources that do not conform to the Eurostat regulation but which they release to the public. These data, for instance in the case of Germany, from the EASY registration system designed to allocate responsibility for possible asylum applicants across Germany, are not consistent with the data member states must produce for Eurostat, so the results can be startlingly different.[2] Over the past ten months of the refugee crisis, uncertainty about the numbers has been a real challenge for policy-makers.

To understand the distribution of asylum seekers across the EU, the only consistent source of information is that released by Eurostat. So what do the Eurostat data reveal about the distribution of asylum seekers in the EU? According to the report it issued on 3 March 2016, relating to the full year of 2015,[3] the total applications received for asylum was just over 1.2 million, with the number by month shown in Figure 1.[4]

Figure 1. First-time asylum applications the EU-28 (January 2014 to December 2015)

As is apparent, the peak of asylum applications was in October/November 2015. There was a substantial drop in applications in December. According to Eurostat, these asylum applicants come from a wide range of countries, but there are three top sources: Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, there were 147 countries of origin of asylum seekers in 2015, according to the data. Syrians accounted for 145,100, Afghans for 79,300 and Iraqis for 53,600. A longer-term comparison of asylum applications in the EU (1998–2016) is provided in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Asylum applications in the EU-28 (1998–2015)

Source: Authors’ elaboration based on Eurostat data.  

Next is one of the most contested issues: Where did these people seek asylum? Table 1 reveals that over the 12-month period, there were 1,256,000 first-time asylum applications in the EU-28. Germany received 441,800 asylum applications, Hungary 174,435 and Sweden a total of 156,110. During the period between October and December 2015 (Q4) alone, Germany received 162,540 applications, corresponding to 38% of the total across the EU. There were surprisingly low numbers of asylum applications among the other, larger member states. For instance, France only received 70,570 applications, Italy 83,245 and the UK 38,370. Five member states accounted for 75% of all applications – Germany, Sweden, Austria, Italy and France, according to Eurostat.

Table 1. First-time asylum applications in the EU-28 (Q4 2014–Q5 2015)

Source: Eurostat.

But asylum seekers do not all go to member states according to an equal distribution of nationality (Table 2). So while the top countries of origin of asylum seekers in the EU as a whole were Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, a different picture emerges for Italy. There the top four countries of origin of asylum seekers were Nigeria, Pakistan, Gambia and Bangladesh. For Greece the top four were Syria, Pakistan, Albania and Iraq. Poland’s top four, which consists of Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Armenia, shares no nationalities with Germany’s list. France, on the other hand, had the following top four: Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Table 2. Top countries of origin of asylum applicants (2015)

Source: Eurostat.

What were the outcomes for asylum seekers over 2015? There are two main forms of protection that the member states can grant to someone seeking asylum. The first is refugee status – which is an acknowledgement by the state that the person has a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her country of origin on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. This status is set out in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Porotocol. When member states recognise someone as a refugee, this is declaratory of the fact that the person has been a refugee since leaving the country of persecution.

Alternatively, the member state can issue a decision that the person is a beneficiary of subsidiary protection. This means that his or her circumstances do not fit the 1951 Refugee Convention definition but that other international and EU commitments mean that the person is entitled to protection. These include a substantial risk of torture in the country of nationality, the death penalty or serious risk of harm as a result of international or internal armed conflict. These rules are set out in the Qualifications Directive No. 2011/95/EU.[5] Member states are permitted to grant people a national status as well if they wish.

According to Eurostat, member states granted protection status to 333,350 asylum seekers during 2015, which constitutes an increase of 72% in comparison with the previous year.[6] Over half of these beneficieries hold Syrian nationality. Germany alone granted the status to 148,200 of the total number in 2015.[7] The first instance decisions on whether a person is a refugee or a beneficary of international protection – some of which will have been made for those who applied for asylum in 2015, but the numbers also include applications made the previous year – are shown in Figure 3 by main country of origin.

Figure 3. First instance decisions on asylum applications by citizenship (Oct. to Dec. 2015)

Source: Eurostat.

Syrians had an overall recognition rate of 98% across the member states, followed by Eritreans at 93% and then Iraqis at 80%. There are differences in recognition rates across member states, which is linked to the differences in countries of origin of asylum seekers, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. First instance decisions by outcome in selected member states (Oct. to Dec. 2015)

Source: Eurostat.

In 2015, the EU adopted a decision to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from the front line states – Greece and Italy – to other member states on the basis of a redistribution key. The European Asylum Support Office provided assistance in the process of allocating asylum seekers to member states.[8] While the temporary relocation scheme is voluntary in nature for member states, it is obligatory for asylum seekers. Figure 5 provides a snapshot of the status of relocations in the EU.

By March 2016, according to the European Commission, only 937 asylum seekers had been relocated from Greece and Italy.[9] More recent Commission data (up to 13 May 2016) show that the total number of persons relocated had increased to about 1,500 (909 from Greece and 591 from Italy). This figure sharply contrasts with the original target of 160,000 asylum applicants due to be relocated from these two countries.[10] As Figures 6 and 7 show, the most significant numbers of relocations have been to France (499), Finland (259), Portugal (211) and the Netherlands (192).

Figure 5. Total relocation of asylum seekers from Greece and Italy (Oct. 2015 to mid-May 2016)

Source: Authors’ elaboration based on European Commission data.

Figure 6. Total relocations from Greece          Figure 7. Total relocations from Italy
               by destination country                                      by destination country


Note: Concerning relocations from Greece, six asylum seekers respectively have been effectively relocated to Cyprus and Lithuania, four to Bulgaria and four to the Czech Republic.

Source: Authors’ elaboration based on European Commission data.[11]

A key finding from the overall statistical data provided here is that in light of the information provided by Eurostat, it seems that most asylum seekers ‘self-relocate’ across the EU. Although the result is that five member states have received the majority of asylum applications, most of these top five are fairly large, have well-functioning asylum systems and with the exception of perhaps Sweden, seem able to cope with their asylum seekers.

Furthermore, of those asylum applications determined in fourth quarter of 2015, over 50% were granted international protection,[12] indicating that of those arriving during the autumn and winter, many fulfil the definition of refugees or persons entitled to international protection.

At the same time, efforts by the EU to engage in the substantial relocation of asylum seekers from front line countries to other member states has been rather unsatisfactory. A number of member states and representatives of the European Commission are highly resistant to the idea that asylum seekers might be better placed to know where their best chances of integration are than any officials, and that this knowledge might be helpful for everyone in both the short and long term.

Yet in practice, it seems that it is asylum seekers who move to seek asylum and member states that determine their applications. Once the member states reach their decisions (often positive), the asylum seeker is recategorised as a refugee or beneficiary of international protection. Then, he or she is entitled to work and to start the process of contributing to the receiving member state.

Prof. Elspeth Guild is Senior Associate Research Fellow at the CEPS, Jean Monnet Professor ad personam of European immigration law at Radboud University Nijmegen and Queen Mary, University of London.

Dr Sergio Carrera is Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Section at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) and Associate Professor of the Faculty of Law at the University of Maastricht..

CEPS Commentaries offer concise, policy-oriented insights into topical issues in European affairs. The views expressed are attributable only to the author in a personal capacity and not to any institution with which he is associated.

Available for free downloading from the CEPS website (www.ceps.eu)

© CEPS 2016


[1] See Regulation (EC) No. 862/2007 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 July 2007 on Community statistics on migration and international protection repealing Regulation (EEC) No. 311/76 on the compilation of statistics on foreign workers [2007], OJ L 199/23, 31.7.2007.

[2] See A. Singleton, “Migration and Asylum Data for Policy Making in the European Union: The Problem with Numbers”, CEPS Paper in Liberty and Security in Europe, No. 89, CEPS, Brussels, March 2016.

[4] According to Eurostat (ibid.),

[t]he number of first time asylum applicants in the EU-28 in 2015 was 66 thousand (about 5 %) less than the total number of applicants. A first time applicant for international protection is a person who lodged an application for asylum for the first time in a given EU Member State and therefore excludes repeat applicants in that Member State and so it reflects more accurately reflects the number of newly arrived persons applying for international protection in the given Member State.

[5] See Directive No. 2011/95/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13 December 2011 on standards for the qualification of third-country nationals or stateless persons as beneficiaries of international protection, for a uniform status for refugees or for persons eligible for subsidiary protection, and for the content of the protection granted, OJ L 337, 20.12.2011.

[6] See Eurostat, “Asylum Decisions in the EU: EU Member States granted protection to more than 330 000 asylum seekers in 2015, Half of the beneficiaries were Syrians”, 75/2016, Luxembourg, 20 April 2016.

[7] Sweden granted 34,500, Italy 29,600, France 26,000, the UK 17,900, Austria 17,800 and the Netherlands 17,000.

[8] For the exact ‘work flow’ and the involvement of actors in the relocation process, refer to European Commission, Annex to the Communication, First Report on Relocation and Resettlement, COM(2016) 165 final, Brussels, 16 March 2016 (http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/european-agenda-migration/proposal-implementation-package/docs/20160316/first_report_on_relocation_and_resettlement_-_annex_5_en.pdf).

[9] See European Commission, Communication, First Report on Relocation and Resettlement, COM(2016) 165, 16 March 2016.

[10] See the Resolution of the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States meeting within the Council on relocating from Greece and Italy 40 000 persons in clear need of international protection, Brussels, 22 July 2015; see also the Council Decision establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and Greece, 12098/15, 22 September 2015.

[11] See European Commission, Annex to the Communication, Third report on relocation and resettlement, Annex 1, Relocations from Greece by 13 May 2016, Brussels, 18.5.2016 COM(2016) 360 final; in the same work see also Annex 2, Relocations from Italy by 13 May 2016.

[12] According to Eurostat, “198,600 first instance decisions were made by the national authorities of EU Member States during the fourth quarter of 2015. Among them, nearly 60% were positive (i.e. granting a type of protection status).” See Eurostat’s “Asylum quarterly report” (data extracted on 15 June 2016), Luxembourg (http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Asylum_quarterly_report).