Role of the European Union

There are approximately a million acknowledged refugees living in the European Union. They represent 7.6% of the world total and are equivalent to 0.2% of the population of the 28 member states. The humanitarian crisis has seen the number of asylum requests received double within one year. Spain is a large country that receives few requests and protects few people. Catalonia's institutions and civil society have been getting into gear to receive those who arrive.

European Union

Asylum figures for the European Union in 2017

649,855 new

973,330 decisions

538,000 people

534,303 applications
turned down

927,300 people
waiting for a reply**

Source: Eurostat.

  • * Decisions taken at first instance.
  • ** Accumulative total in October 2017.

The years 2014 and 2015 ended with record and alarming figures for displaced people. Three million people fled their countries and sought refuge in another in 2014 alone. More than 627,000 asked for asylum in the European Union. And a further million sought protection in the EU in the course of 2015.

The lack of safe, legal routes to the European Union and tighter controls of its external borders drives refugees into the hands of the mafias and forces them to follow dangerous routes. In the course of 2015, more than 1.5 million people entered or tried to enter EU territory irregularly, almost double the figure for 2009-2014, according to data provided by Frontex, the European agency responsible for controlling the external borders, and the European Commission. The UNHCR estimates that more than a million people arrived by sea, and that 3,771 drowned when their boats sank or disappeared en route.

Most come from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria and Iraq, fleeing armed conflicts, violence, oppression and human rights' violations. Others leave behind natural disasters, hunger and poverty.

The European Union is the most prosperous political block on the planet but it has reacted to the refugee crisis by sealing its borders, by negotiating meagre quotas between member states to ease the pressure on Italy and Greece and by allocating financial aid to humanitarian programmes and assistance, especially in countries sharing borders with Syria, where the bulk of the refugees now are.


Political asylum Click to unfold the content

The EU countries are signatories to a long list of laws that mean they are obliged to accept and offer adequate protection to refugees and guarantee the rights of all migrants, regardless of the reasons for their displacement.

The European Union has been implementing the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) since 1999, to harmonise legislation, apply similar criteria to the processing and assessing of asylum requests and attend to both asylum seekers and people granted protection, in order to ensure their safety, decent reception conditions and access to health, education and social services, residence permits and work permits.

Some member states, including Spain, have not fully incorporated these into their national legislation, which why the European Commission started proceedings against them in 2015 for breach of regulations. But differences persist and refugees receive different treatment, depending on where they apply for protection.

CEAS also has a common database of asylum-seekers' fingerprints (Eurodac) which is used to decide which country is responsible for processing the application. That means when a refugee travels across several countries seeking refuge, one of those states may deport them to the first one they arrived at, usually one of the border countries.

The "Dublin system", named after the convention that launched it, affects an average of about 50,000 cases a year. This takes into account the family unit, meaning the state responsible is the one that the applicant's relatives already live in rather than the one that the applicant prefers .

The European Union distinguishes asylum seekers from refugees. The former are those who ask for international protection, while the latter are those who obtain it. To reach their goal, asylum seekers have to go through a long procedure, which varies in length from one country to another, and prove they had to abandon their country of origin because of a danger to life and limb, something that is not always easy to show. States award two forms of protection: the status of refugee and subsidiary protection. Some countries also allow people to stay for humanitarian reasons.

Asylum data Click to unfold the content

March 2015 saw the European Union hosting roughly 1 million known refugees and more than 800,000 applicants for international protection still waiting for a response, according to European Commission data. The combined total is equivalent to 0.36% of the entire population of the European Union, or 3.6 people per 1,000 habitants.

The number of asylum seekers increased considerably in 2014, with 45% more people seeking refuge than in the previous year. But numbers really shot up from June 2015 on, with a monthly average of 125,000 people, more than double the figure in the previous months. The annual total topped a million people, compared to 627,000 in 2014.

The ten main countries the asylum seekers came from in 2014 and 2015 were Syria, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, Albania, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Serbia and Ukraine. The main countries where they asked for asylum were Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Austria, Italy and France.

The choice of which European country people ask for asylum in depends on a lot of factors, ranging from historical links between the departure and arrival country, and knowledge of the language, to the presence of established communities and the local economic situation. But the perception applicants have of the possibilities for obtaining international protection there, and the advantages this might bring, carries greater weight.

Sweden and Germany are the two most generous countries in the European Union in that regard. The former receives the most applications per capita, 4.3 per 1,000 habitants, and grants the highest rate of protection, 71% of all decisions taken. The latter receives the most applications, one out of every three throughout the European Union, and grants the most protection in absolute terms, 26% of the total.

The recognition average for European Union countries in 2014 was 45% of all decisions taken. In other words, 55% of applications were turned down. The main beneficiaries were Syrian citizens (37% of the total) followed by Eritreans, Afghans and Iraqis.

Emergency measures Click to unfold the content

The European Commission proposed two emergency mechanisms for involving member states in the refugee crisis in May 2015: relocation quotas and resettlement quotas. These must be achieved in two years. The former related to people who had already managed to reach the European Union and were in Italy and Greece. The latter refered to people who had sought protection in countries sharing borders with Syria, especially in refugee camps in Turkey, Libanon and Jordan.

A total of 160,000 were divided up among member states in the case of the former, and 20,000 in the case of the latter. That distribution was calculated according to the population and GDP of each one, adjusted for their employment rate and asylum effort in the previous five years. Germany took on the most, followed by France and Spain. Each country received 6,000 euros in compensation for each person relocated.

The quotas applied to those refugees from third countries that had an average European recognition rate of 75%, then Syria, Eritrea and Iraq.

The two programs ended in the fall of 2017. According to figures from the European Commission, some 28,239 people were relocated and 17,305 resettled, representing 25% of the total.

The quotas were accompanied by measures to encourage the deportation of migrants in an irregular situation. As a result, between September and December 2015, 153 people were deported from Italy and 683 people on joint flights coordinated by member states and Frontex, the agency responsible for controlling the EU's external borders. The destinations included Egypt, Tunisia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Albania and Kosovo.

Total figures for the number of people forced to leave European territory each year are not available. Nearly 626,000 people in an irregular situation were identified in 2014 and more than 470,000 were ordered to leave. Over 192,000 did so. A little over 42,000 people were deported from the 16 countries for which figures are available, 30% of whom were from France and another 30% from Spain.

Facts and figures of the crisis in the European Union

Economic migrants 'versus' refugees

This is a refugee crisis, not an "economic migrant" crisis. Eighty-four per cent of the more than one million people who reached the European Union by sea in 2015 came from the world's ten main refugee countries of origin, according to UNHCR data. Nearly half had fled from Syria, 21% from Afghanistan and 13% from Iraq and Eritrea, all candidates for applying for and getting international protection.

Illegal 'versus' legal arrivals

The EU arrival routes are illegal because its legislation does not provide for any legal ones. The number of arrivals in 2015 was almost double the number for 2009-2014. The absence of safe legal routes has turned the Mediterranean into an enormous grave. A report by the International Organisation for Migrations (IOM) estimates that 75% of all deaths during migratory journeys around the world occurred in 2014.

Irregular migrants 'versus' asylum seekers

No one knows how many undocumented people live in the European Union, only the number that the authorities in each country identify as being in an irregular situation. A third of the nearly 626,000 detected in 2014 were citizens of Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan, according to Eurostat data. The same year, almost 470,000 people were ordered to leave one or other of the member states. Of those, 44,700 had Syrian nationality.

Number of refugees 'versus' refugees per capita

A country as small as Lebanon, a third the size of Catalonia and with less than half its GDP per capita, today hosts 232 refugees per thousand inhabitants. Jordan hosts 87, Chad 34 and Sweden 15. Compared to that, in March 2015 the European Union was hosting an average of about 3.2 per 1,000 inhabitants, adding known refugees to asylum seekers waiting for a reply to their application.

Emergency 'versus' paralysis

The EU countries agreed to relocate 160,000 refugees in two years, to ease the burden on the arrival countries, especially Italy and Greece. This was an emergency plan but it began litlle by little. Just about 4,200 reception places were created in 2015 and 272 people were relocated. if continued at its 2015 rate, it would have taken more than 245 years to carry out.

The reception cost 'versus' the cost of deportations

The cost of receiving 160,000 refugees relocated from Italy and Greece is nearly a million euros. Yet the EU countries - along with Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein - spend that annually on deporting thousands of people, according to the calculations of the journalists' consortium behind the Migrant Files.

Map of the European Union where you can see the number of asylum applications, plus positive and negative responses, for each member state in 2015, as well as the percentage of the EU total that represents.

Asylum data for the European Union by member states
Decisions: those taken in first instance have been taken into account.
Period: from January to September 2015.


  • Asylum applications in 2015
  • Trend in asylum applications
  • Decisions on asylum in 2015
  • Trend in decisions on asylum


Four bar charts show the trend in the number of asylum applications and the decisions taken on applications from January to October 2015, and from 2008 to 2015.