Refugees Surge to Europe
In 2015, the largest number of asylum-seekers came from Syria—like these refugees waiting at a Budapest train station—and their primary destination was Germany. (© Spectral-Design/Shutterstock)
Even during times of war and political unrest, European Union member nations, as well as nonmembers Switzerland and Norway, never experienced the number of asylum-seekers that came knocking on their doors in 2015.
Europe received some 1.3 million applications for asylum in 2015—more than in any year in the past three decades and more than twice as many as in 2014, according to analysis published in August by the Pew Research Center.
The number of migrants is nearly double the amount in 1992, the previous record-setting year. At that time, some 700,000 people, mainly from Eastern Europe, headed to Western Europe, eager to seize opportunity after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Europe also saw another boom of asylum-seekers in the early 2000s, after the Kosovo War, when some 460,000 applied for asylum in the EU, Norway, and Switzerland, mainly from Kosovo
“2015 amounted to about one-tenth of all asylum applications received during the past 30 years by current EU countries, Norway, and Switzerland,” says Phillip Connor, a research associate at the Pew Research Center and author of the report. “We saw an astonishing amount of applications.”
Connor says the time was right for the Washington-based research center to augment its studies of global demographic trends by collecting “facts and data behind the reports and media images of the refugee crisis during the past few years to see how the movement stood up historically. We saw lots of reports about the refugee crisis in the past year but no central place for the numbers to come together.”
The report used data from Eurostat, the European Commission’s statistical agency, which have been gathered in a consistent and systematic way and provide others studying the issue with a new perspective on the global concern. “These data give some important insights into source countries and the demographic characteristics of the migrants,” says Richard Alba, distinguished professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.
Overwhelmingly, they came from the Middle East; about half began in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, with the number of asylum-seekers from these three countries alone more than quadrupling between 2013 and 2015. The largest group was from Syria, which accounted for nearly 30 percent of all European asylum-seekers in 2015—378,000, compared with 49,000 in 2013. Other migrants came to Europe from Kosovo, Albania, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Iran, Somalia, Ukraine, Serbia, Russia, Bangladesh, and Gambia. Four in 10 were young men ages 18-34; overall, nearly 73 percent were male.
Alba says that’s largely because “the migration is so dangerous and uncertain.” He adds: “In the cases of migrants from the Middle East, families have often been left behind in camps [in Lebanon or Turkey]. No doubt, in some cases, if the young men are able to establish themselves in Europe, they will send for families.”
The primary destination for asylum-seekers continues to be Germany. Europe’s most populous nation received applications from an unprecedented 442,000 individual first-time asylum-seekers in 2015, the highest number received by a European country in a single year during the past three decades. That reinforces a long-standing trend: Germany has received more asylum applications since 1985 than any other country, accounting for 32 percent of applications (France, at 11 percent, is the next highest).
What’s more, asylum applications in Germany substantially understate the actual number of migrants to the country, according to Alba. “The bureaucracy in Germany has been overwhelmed and been unable to register all of the intended asylum claims,” he says.
Consider this comparison to grasp the pace of the migration and its potential impact on Europe: The United States, with a population of some 320 million and significantly more landmass than any European country, is about 14 percent foreign-born. But it took 10 years, from 2005-15, for this percentage to rise a single point, from 13 percent. Meanwhile, notes Connor, “the percentage in several smaller European countries rose a percentage point in a single year. That’s huge.”
Such a shift has a significant effect on many aspects of daily life, including the housing market, social services, and the educational system—which now may be accommodating students who can barely speak the local language.
In addition, some of these children may have come alone. The number of unaccompanied minors, children under 18 without guardians, applying for asylum in Europe has spiked since 2008, with nearly half of the 198,500 unaccompanied applicants from 2008-15 arriving in 2015 alone. Unlike Europe’s asylum-seekers as a whole, the country of choice for these younger migrants—almost 40 percent of whom came from Afghanistan—is Sweden, which received 29 percent
of the applications of unaccompanied minor refugees from 2008–15.
Overwhelming majorities of European citizens disapprove of how the EU has handled immigration, according to the center’s analysis. Perhaps not surprisingly, the disapproval was generally greatest in countries that had the most asylum applications. Some 850,000 arrivals in 2015 entered Europe through Greece before heading north. Ninety-four percent of Greeks were dissatisfied with the way the EU handled the influx, as were 88 percent of Swedes, 77 percent of Italians, and 75 percent of Spaniards. In Germany, two-thirds of the citizenry didn’t approve of the EU approach to the migration crisis.
In addition, a separate Pew Research Center survey this year revealed that half or more of the respondents in eight of 10 European nations say incoming refugees increase the likelihood of terrorism in their country. And in five of the nations surveyed, half or more of the respondents say refugees will take away jobs and social benefits. More than 6 in 10 adults in Hungary, Poland, and Greece say they have an unfavorable opinion of Muslims.
“The refugee flood in Europe is something that begs to be understood,” says Alba. “Pew is informing Americans about this critical subject for our times. The report makes a valuable contribution.”