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Asylum and migration in the EU: Facts and figures

EU Reporter Correspondent



The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on migration flows in the EU. Movement restrictions put in place in light of the coronavirus pandemic have led to a reduction in migration, both legal and illegal, as countries have closed borders, restricted routes for legal migration and scaled back programmes to take in refugees.

However, the flaws in the EU's asylum system exposed by the arrival of more than one million asylum seekers and migrants in 2015 remain. Parliament has been working on proposals to create a fairer, more effective European asylum policy.

Below you will find all the relevant data about migration in Europe, who migrants are, what the EU is doing to get to grips with the situation, and what financial implications there have been.

Definitions: What is a refugee? What is an asylum seeker?

Asylum seekers are people who make a formal request for asylum in another country because they fear their life is at risk in their home country.

Refugees are people with a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, politics or membership of a particular social group who have been accepted and recognised as such in their host country. In the EU, the qualification directive sets guidelines for assigning international protection to those who need it.

Currently people from outside the EU must apply for protection in the first EU country they enter. Filing a claim means that they become asylum applicants (or asylum seekers). They receive refugee status or a different form of international protection only once a positive decision has been made by national authorities.

Find out more about the causes of migration.

Asylum decisions in the EU

In the first 10 months of 2020, there were 390,000 asylum applications in the EU, 33% less than the same period of 2019. In 2018, there were 634,700 applications, significantly lower than the more than one million applications registered in 2015 and 2016.

Particularly large declines were seen in Germany, France and Italy in the first seven months of 2020. There were fewer first-time applications from Syria (135,000 fewer than the average for 2018 and 2019, down 52%), Iraq (down 55%) and Nigeria (down 58%).

However, numbers were up in Spain and Romania, partly due to an increase in applications from South American countries, including Colombia (up 102% on the average of the previous two years) and Peru (76% higher).

A six-year low in irregular border crossings

The European Border and Coast Guard Agency collects data on illegal crossings of the EU's external borders registered by national authorities.

In 2015 and 2016, more than 2.3 million illegal crossings were detected. The total number of illegal crossings in January-November 2020 dropped to 114,300, the lowest level in the last six years and a decrease of 10% compared to the same period in 2019. Despite a 55% drop, Afghanistan remains one of the main countries of origin of people detected making an irregular border crossing, along with Syria, Tunisia and Algeria.

The Mediterranean crossing remained deadly, with 1,754 people reported dead or missing in 2020 compared to 2,095 people in 2019. Irregular arrivals via the Central Mediterranean Route (to Italy and Malta) increased by 154% in January-November 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

There were more than 34,100 such arrivals in 2020, compared to nearly 11,500 in 2019, with the majority of people arriving in Lampedusa. Arrivals in Spain, and in particular the Canary Islands, increased by 46% (35,800) in 2020 compared to 2019.

Many new arrivals originate from countries suffering from an economic downturn rather than conflict. A decline in global remittances is also likely to contribute to this trend. Until the pandemic is contained and economic recovery is underway, poor employment and healthcare prospects will remain an incentive for people to come to the EU.

What Europeans are thinking

Migration has been an EU priority for years. Several measures have been taken to manage migration flows as well as to improve the asylum system.

Even though the Eurobarometer survey from June 2019 shows that migration was the fifth biggest issue that influenced Europeans’ voting decisions for that year’s EU elections, a Parlemeter 2020 survey registered a drop in importance. It is considered as the main area of disagreement between the EU and national governments by nearly half (47%) of respondents.

The EU significantly increased its funding for migration, asylum and integration policies in the wake of the increased inflow of asylum seekers in 2015. € 22.7 billion goes to migration and border management in the EU’s budget for 2021-2027, compared with €10bn for migration and asylum in 2014-2020.

Learn more about how the EU manages migration.

Refugees in the world

Around the world, the number of people fleeing persecution, conflict and violence has reached 80 million. That is equivalent to almost every man, woman and child in Germany being forced from their homes. Children account for about 40% of the world’s refugee population.

The countries hosting the largest number of refugees are Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda and Germany. Only 14% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developed countries.

Check out the infographic for the 2019 Eurostat figures on asylum applications in the EU as well as UNHCR figures on the number of refugees in EU countries.


European Agenda on Migration

EU executive says member states should help Italy with migrant relocation





European countries need to show solidarity towards Italy after the arrival by boat of hundreds of migrants on the country's southern island of Lampedusa at the weekend, the EU's home affairs commissioner said on Monday (10 May).

"When we see...a huge amount of people coming in a very short time there is a need for solidarity towards Italy, and I call on other member states to support with relocation," Ylva Johansson told a news conference.

"I know it's more difficult in the pandemic time but I think it's possible to manage and now it's time ... to show solidarity towards Italy and to help in the situation," she said alongside Filippo Grandi, Commissioner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

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1,600 offences detected in a global operation against marine pollution

EU Reporter Correspondent



Between 1 and 30 March 2021, 300 agencies across 67 countries joined forces against marine pollution during the third global operation 30 Days at Sea. Europol and Frontex co-ordinated the European leg of the operation, as part of the EMPACT action plan on environmental crime, while INTERPOL co-ordinated the global activities. The actions led to the identification of numerous crimes ranging from illegal discharge to waste trafficking and the investigation of thousands of suspects worldwide.   

Frontline action followed five months of intelligence collection and analysis, enabling participating countries to identify hotspots and targets.

The simultaneous actions in March led to:

  • 34,000 inspections at sea and inland waterways, coastal areas and ports; 
  • 1,600 marine pollution offences detected in total;
  • 500 illegal acts of pollution committed at sea, including oil discharges, illegal shipbreaking and sulphur emissions from vessels;
  • 1,000 pollution offences in coastal areas and in rivers, including illegal discharges of contaminants;
  • 130 cases of waste trafficking through ports.

By using INTERPOL’s wide range of databases and analytical capabilities, countries were able to connect pollution crime with other serious crimes such as fraud, corruption, tax evasion, money laundering, piracy, and illegal fishing. 

Criminals attempt to abuse the pandemic also at sea

With many enforcement resources being reassigned to tackle the pandemic, criminals have been quick to exploit growing vulnerabilities in different crime areas including environmental crime. Inspections uncovered typical forms of marine pollution crime, from vessel discharges to waste trafficking by sea, but also criminal trends that have been growing amid the pandemic. Growing trends included COVID-19 disposable items such as masks and gloves, with 13 cases involving medical waste opened as a result of the operation. 

A major criminal network trafficking plastic waste between Europe and Asia was exposed, triggering cooperation between authorities from both regions. So far, 22 suspects have been arrested and thousands of tonnes of waste have been prevented from being illegally shipped to Asia. It is highly likely that the waste would have likely been dumped there, contaminating soils and generating considerable marine litter.

Several countries from Europe, Asia and Africa reported illegal shipments of contaminated or mixed metal waste falsely declared as metal scraps. In one case, the Italian Coast Guard seized and prevented 11 000 tonnes of metal scraps mixed with plastic, rubber, mineral oil and other contaminants from being loaded onto bulk carriers headed for Turkey. Namibia, the Philippines and Croatia also reported cases of illegal waste shipments from Europe.

Global coordination to counter the pollution of our seas

Europol and FRONTEX (European Border and Coast Guard Agency) coordinated the European leg of 30 Days at Sea 3.0, while INTERPOL’s Environmental Security Programme coordinating the operation globally. 

Europol’s Executive Director Catherine De Bolle said: “Marine pollution is a serious threat, which endangers not only the environment but our health and in the long run our global economy. Criminals do not care about the environment; they do not think of tomorrow, but only of increasing their profits on the back of our society. Consolidated law enforcement efforts such as the operation 30 Days at Sea are critical to tackle these borderless crimes and protect our environmental heritage for generations to come.”

INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock said: “The threat of pollution crime is constantly evolving, endangering the air we breathe, our water and soil. Although this is the third edition of 30 Days at Sea, it is never the same exercise. 

It is thanks to a global yet agile network that we have seen the number of inspections more than double since the first edition: a clear sign that the international community will not stand for criminal attacks on our environment.”

“Environmental crime is one of many criminal activities Frontex targets as part of our mission as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. This is our contribution to the protection of the environment. I’m proud that, as part of 30 Days at Sea, Frontex aerial and maritime assets monitored nearly 1 000 vessels,” said Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri.

All three editions of Operation 30 Days at Sea 3.0 have been carried out with funding from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad).

*Participating countries:

17 EU Member States: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden

50 non-EU countries: Angola, Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Benin, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Chilie, China, Cote d’Ivoire, Dem Rep Congo, Ecuador Ethiopia, Fiji, Georgia, Ghana, Guatemala, Guinea Bissau, Honduras, India, Israel, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Maldives, Namibia, Nigeria, Norway, Philippines, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Zimbabwe Headquartered in The Hague, the Netherlands, we support the 27 EU member states in their fight against terrorism, cybercrime and other serious and organised forms of crime. We also work with many non-EU partner states and international organisations. From its various threat assessments to its intelligence-gathering and operational activities, Europol has the tools and resources it needs to do its part in making Europe safer.


In 2010 the European Union set up a four-year Policy Cycle to ensure greater continuity in the fight against serious international and organized crime. In 2017 the Council of the EU decided to continue the EU Policy Cycle for the 2018 - 2021 period. It aims to tackle the most significant threats posed by organised and serious international crime to the EU. This is achieved by improving and strengthening cooperation between the relevant services of EU member states, institutions and agencies, as well as non-EU countries and organisations, including the private sector where relevant. Environmental crime is one of the priorities for the Policy Cycle.

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Migration management: New EU Strategy on voluntary return and reintegration

EU Reporter Correspondent



The Commission is adopting the first EU Strategy on voluntary return and reintegration. The Strategy promotes voluntary return and reintegration as an integral part of a common EU system for returns, a key objective under the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. It sets out practical measures to strengthen the legal and operational framework for voluntary returns from Europe and from transit countries, improve the quality of return and reintegration programmes, establish better links with development initiatives and strengthen cooperation with partner countries

Promoting our European Way of Life Vice President Margaritis Schinas said: “The EU is building a new ecosystem on returns – looking at increasing cooperation on readmission, improving the governance framework, equipping Frontex with a new operational mandate on returns and appointing an EU Return Coordinator. Today's Strategy on voluntary returns and reintegration is another piece of that puzzle. Returns are more effective when they are voluntary and accompanied by genuine reintegration options for returnees and this Strategy will develop a more uniform and coordinated approach among Member States to unlock their full potential.”

Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said: “Only about a third of people with no right to stay in the EU return to their country of origin and of those who do, fewer than 30% do so voluntarily. Voluntary returns are always the better option: they put the individual at the core, they are more effective and less costly Our first ever strategy on voluntary return and reintegration will help returnees from both the EU and third countries to seize opportunities in their home country, contribute to the development of the community and build trust in our migration system to make it more effective.”

An effective legal and operational framework

Gaps between asylum and return procedures, challenges in preventing absconding, insufficient resources, lack of data, overall fragmentation and limited administrative capacity to follow-up on return decisions all contribute to the low uptake in assisted voluntary returns programmes. Through the proposed recast Return Directive, the amended proposal for an Asylum Procedures Regulation, the Asylum and Migration Management Regulation  and the revised Eurodac Regulation, the Commission will continue to put in place fast and fair common procedures and rules on asylum and return, monitor the granting of return and reintegration assistance and reduce the risk of unauthorised movements. Through its enhanced mandate, Frontex can support Member States in all stages of the voluntary return and reintegration process, including on pre-return counselling, post-arrival support and monitoring the effectiveness of reintegration assistance. The Return Coordinator and High Level Network for Return will provide further technical support to Member States in bringing together different strands of EU return policy.

Improved quality of assisted voluntary return programmes

Providing early, tailor-made and effective return counselling taking into account individual circumstances, the needs of children and vulnerable groups, as well as support after return, improves their chances of successful and sustainable reintegration into their home communities. The Commission will work with Frontex to develop a common curriculum for return counsellors complementing existing support from the Agency and making better use of web-based tools such as the Return and Reintegration Assistance Inventory and the Reintegration Assistance Tool. The Commission, in cooperation with Member States, Frontex and the European Return and Reintegration Network, will also develop a quality framework for reintegration service providers based on common standards for managing projects, supported by EU funding.  

Strengthening cooperation with partner countries

Cooperation on voluntary return and reintegration is a key aspect of migration partnerships that the EU will strengthen under the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. The EU will support the ownership of reintegration processes in partner countries with capacity building, providing staff with the necessary skills, or supporting governance structures to cater to the specific economic, social and psychosocial needs of returnees. The EU will also continue to provide assistance for voluntary return and reintegration of migrants stranded in other countries, including through exploring new partnerships. Finally, the EU will strengthen links between reintegration programmes and other relevant development initiatives in partner countries. The Commission will ensure a more coordinated use of the financial resources that will be available under different EU funds to support the entirety of the voluntary return and reintegration process.


Today's Strategy is part of the EU's work to build a common EU system for return under the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.

The Strategy is based on the results and experience gained in implementing national programmes and EU-funded initiatives in partner countries, including the work done by the European Return and Reintegration Network, Frontex and the EU–International Organization for Migration Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration.

More information

Communication: The EU Strategy on voluntary returns and reintegration

Commission Staff Working Document: The EU framework on return counselling and the Reintegration Assistance Tool

Q&A: The EU Strategy on voluntary returns and reintegration

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