Updated March 20, 2019
Europe’s Refugee and Migration Flows
Mixed Migration to Europe
Routes, Flows, and Arrival Profiles
Over the past several years, Europe has experienced
significant refugee and migrant flows as people have fled
conflict and poverty in bordering regions. Although 2015 is
considered the height of the crisis, refugee and migrant
arrivals have continued (see Table 1). The war in Syria has
created millions of refugees in neighboring countries and
driven some to leave for Europe. Other refugees and
migrants originate from elsewhere in the Middle East, as
well as Afghanistan, Africa, South Asia, and some Western
Balkan countries. Experts characterize these flows as mixed
migration, defined as different groups of people—such as
economic migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless
persons, trafficked persons, and unaccompanied children—
who travel the same routes and use the same modes of
transportation (see text box). Many of these individuals do
not have the required documentation, such as passports and
visas, and often use smugglers and unauthorized border
Refugees and migrants travel various routes to reach
Europe, and the routes often shift in use and popularity. As
seen in Figure 1, several routes cross the western, central,
and eastern Mediterranean Sea. Greece and Italy have been
major arrival and transit points for years, and Spain has
seen an uptick in arrivals since 2017. There are land routes
via Turkey and the Balkans and along eastern borders with
Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, and Russia.
The flows have challenged European governments and the
European Union (EU). The distinctions between groups in
the mixed migration flows have raised questions about
determination of status and rights. A key policy
consideration is whether the movement is viewed as
voluntary or forced. The U.N. High Commissioner for
Refugees (UNHCR) asserts that many of the arrivals are
from refugee-producing countries and require due process
for asylum claims. Many also need humanitarian and
protection assistance. At the same time, some of those
seeking to enter Europe may be economic migrants.
Mixed migration flows may include groups such as
Economic migrants, who are largely trying to escape poverty
and seek a better life. They do so legally or illegally, for the long
term or temporarily. In theory, these migrants would receive the
protection of their government should they return home.
Refugees, who have fled their country of origin because of a
well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion,
nationality, or membership in a particular social or political
group. Refugees are unwilling or unable to avail themselves of
the protection of their home government due to fears of
persecution. Once granted refugee status, a person has certain
legal rights and protections under international law.
Figure 1. Main Mediterranean Sea Migration Routes
Source: Graphic created by CRS, based on information from The
Economist, New York Times, UNHCR, and Frontex.
Reportedly, significant numbers of refugees and migrants
arriving in Greece come from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan,
whereas a majority of those arriving in Italy and Spain are
from African countries. Although the main surge in arrivals
occurred in 2015, the estimated number of dead or missing
was highest in 2016. The International Organization for
Migration (IOM) estimates that many of those who have
perished in the Mediterranean were from Africa.
Table 1. Estimated Refugee/Migrant Flows to Europe
Asylum-seekers, who flee their home country and seek
sanctuary in another state where they apply for asylum (i.e., the
right to be recognized as a refugee). Asylum-seekers may receive
legal protection and assistance while their formal status is
Stateless persons, who are not considered to be citizens of any
state under national laws.
Source: UNHCR, IOM.
Europe’s Refugee and Migration Flows
Many refugees and migrants are eager to reach European
countries that belong to the Schengen area of free
movement, which allows travel without passport checks
among 26 participating states. Germany and Sweden
traditionally have been preferred final destinations due to
perceptions that they are more likely to grant asylum and
provide better welfare benefits.
As seen in Table 2, asylum claims in the EU spiked in 2015
and 2016 but have since decreased to pre-crisis levels.
Table 2. First-Time Asylum Applications in the EU
Some 80% of asylum claims in the fourth quarter of 2018
were in six EU countries: Germany (24%), France (21%),
Greece (13%), Spain (10%), the UK (7%), and Italy (6%).
On average in the EU, 90% of Syrians and 80% of Eritreans
qualified for asylum or subsidiary protection, as did over
50% of Afghans, Sudanese, and Somalis, and roughly 40%
of Iraqis and Iranians. The majority of asylum claims from
people from other African countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh,
and the Western Balkans were rejected.
EU Responses and Challenges
For years, the EU has sought to develop a comprehensive
migration and asylum policy, but progress has been slow
because of national sovereignty concerns and sensitivities
about minorities and integration. As a result, policies vary
widely across the EU. Germany and Sweden have accepted
hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees since 2015,
but other EU countries—especially in Central and Eastern
Europe—have been less welcoming. The EU has attempted
to address the flows through a range of initiatives, but the
flows have posed humanitarian and security challenges,
strained the Schengen system, and divided the EU.
By March 2016, EU efforts began to focus on discouraging
people from undertaking the journey to Europe. EU leaders
agreed to end the “wave-through approach,” which allowed
individuals arriving in Greece to transit the Western
Balkans to seek asylum in other EU countries. The EU also
concluded a deal with Turkey in which Turkey agreed to
take back irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into
Greece in exchange for substantial EU financial assistance
and other concessions. The accord with Turkey and similar
EU efforts in 2017 to work with the U.N.-backed Libyan
government are credited with helping reduce the flows.
Such measures, however, remain controversial on human
rights grounds and fragile given heightened EU-Turkish
tensions and instability in Libya. In late 2017, the EU began
assisting refugees and migrants facing abuse in Libyan
detention centers with repatriation to their country of origin,
or, for those unable to return, with resettlement elsewhere.
the “frontline” countries of Italy and Greece to help register
refugees and migrants; efforts to strengthen external EU
border controls and bolster Frontex (the EU’s border and
coast guard agency); and initiatives to address the root
causes of migration, especially in Africa. The EU also has
worked to resettle refugees from outside the EU and to
relocate some asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy to
other EU countries for asylum processing.
Despite the decrease in refugee and migrant arrivals since
2016, many EU governments face domestic pressure for
policies largely aimed at curbing future flows. Among other
measures, the EU is considering establishing regional
disembarkation platforms outside the EU to assess asylum
claims for people saved at sea. This proposal is
controversial both within and outside the EU amid
questions about its feasibility and legality. The EU would
have to persuade non-EU countries to participate, and some
African countries do not appear inclined to do so. Revising
EU asylum processing rules to relieve some of the burden
on frontline states is also contentious. In 2018, Italy began
turning away some ships with rescued refugees and
migrants, asserting that other EU countries must be willing
to accept more individuals for asylum processing.
International Humanitarian Response
UNHCR is working closely with the EU, national
governments, and local authorities to assess humanitarian
and protection needs and provide support. Other
international humanitarian organizations and entities are
also assisting the displaced. Even as overall numbers of
refugee and migrant arrivals fall, reports of people
smuggling; trafficking networks; unaccompanied children;
abuses (including sexual violence, torture, abductions); and
deaths persist. With limited oversight and legal protection,
UNHCR and others argue the flow of arrivals cannot be
exported to other countries. Experts say there is a need for
increased resettlement, safe and legal mechanisms for
arrivals, greater access to asylum procedures at borders, and
better protection in neighboring countries.
Issues for the United States
Many U.S. officials and Members of Congress view the
refugee and migrant flows to Europe as a potential threat to
the region’s stability and a key challenge facing the EU.
U.S. concerns also have centered on the risk that terrorists
could enter Europe as part of the flows. The United States
has supported NATO maritime missions and NATO-EU
cooperation in the Mediterranean, and U.S. and EU officials
traditionally have worked together on global refugee and
migration concerns. In 2018, U.N. member states adopted a
Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration
and a Global Compact on Refugees. The United States
withdrew from both compacts during the negotiation phase.
The U.S. worldwide refugee ceiling was set at 110,000 in
FY2017, 45,000 in FY2018, and 30,000 in FY2019.
Other EU steps since 2015 to address the flows include
enhanced EU maritime missions in the Mediterranean and
cooperation with NATO to save lives and combat human
trafficking; establishment of EU facilities (or hotspots) in
Europe’s Refugee and Migration Flows
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