Number of Refugees to Europe Surges to Record 1.3 Million in 2015

Source: Pew Research Center

Recent wave accounts for about one-in-ten asylum applications since 1985

A record 1.3 million migrants applied for asylum in the 28 member states of the European Union, Norway and Switzerland in 2015 – nearly double the previous high water mark of roughly 700,000 that was set in 1992 after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency.

Today, Eastern European countries like Kosovo and Albania still contribute to the overall flow of asylum seekers into the EU, Norway and Switzerland, but about half of refugees in 2015 trace their origins to just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Conflicts, both fresh and long-standing, in each of these states have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. Some have been displaced within their homelands; others have sought refuge in neighboring countries; and still others have made the often perilous journey to Europe (and elsewhere) to seek asylum.

Since 2012, Germany has been the primary destination country for asylum seekers in Europe, receiving 442,000 asylum applications in 2015 alone. Following Germany, Hungary (174,000 applications) and Sweden (156,000) received the highest number of asylum applications in 2015. Meanwhile, France (71,000) and the UK (39,000) received roughly the same number of applications in 2015 as in years just prior to the refugee surge in 2015.

Refugees did not disperse equally across Europe, with some countries taking in more asylum seekers than the European average. In 2015, the EU-28, Norway and Switzerland as a whole had 250 asylum applicants per 100,000 residents. By comparison, Hungary had 1,770 applicants per 100,000 people (the highest of any country) and Sweden had 1,600 applicants per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, Germany had 540 applicants per 100,000 people, still well above the total European rate. By contrast, France had only 110 applicants per 100,000 people in its total population in 2015 and the UK had only 60 asylum seekers per 100,000 people.

Refugee? Asylum seeker? Migrant?

Much debate has focused on the terms used to describe the rapid rise in the number of people moving into Europe from other countries, many of whom are from the Middle East. Should these people be described as refugees? Asylum seekers? Or as migrants? Since the principal data source for this report is asylum-seeker application data as published by Eurostat, Europe’s statistical agency, the report mostly uses the terms asylum seekers or asyleesto describe this population. However, the report also uses the term migrant interchangeably with asylum seeker and asylee to describe the migration process. The term refugee is also used in the report to describe the internationally-recognized status many had before arriving in Europe. (For more on the asylum application process in Europe, see the textboxes in this overview).

The 2015 surge marked the largest annual flow of asylum seekers to Europe since 1985. By comparison, the second largest came in 1992, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, when 697,000 applied for asylum to the nations that make up current EU countries, Norway and Switzerland. 1 Europe again experienced an uptick in asylum applications during conflicts in Kosovo in the late 1990s, with asylum applications peaking at 463,000 in 2002. However, 2015’s surge stands out not only as a record year for asylum applications, but for the fact that it had more applicants than the previous peak years of 1992 and 2002 combined. Since 1985, Europe received about 11.6 million asylum applications – meaning that last year’s 1.3 million amounted to about one-tenth of all applications received during the past 30 years by current EU countries, Norway and Switzerland.

Earlier this year, the EU and Turkey reached an agreement that has largely halted the flow of migrants from points east through Turkey, on to Greece and eventually to other parts of the EU. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 8,000 migrants arrived in Greece between April and July 2016 after the agreement with Turkey was put into full effect. Before the agreement, about 150,000 migrants had arrived in Greece between January and March 2016.

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