Thinking Aloud: Breakdown of the Refugee Crisis

Apr. 25, 2015 by Darius 

As thousands of migrants continue to die in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, victims of thirst, smugglers, and bad weather, the refugee crisis has never received more attention.  But where exactly are most asylum seekers coming from, and where do they end up?

In 2014, according to the UN, there were 866,000 formal asylum seekers to the world’s 44 industrialized countries, an increase of more than 25% from the previous year.  Of course, this number does not include a very large number of migrants who do not formally apply for asylum.  In 2014, Germany received the most asylum applications at 173,000, followed by the US (121,000), Turkey, Sweden, and Italy.

Aside from the US, Europe receives almost all asylum applications—714,000 in 2014.  Previously, Europe accounted for a far smaller share in both absolute number and percentage of total asylum seekers.  The five top source countries for asylum seekers in Europe are Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Eritrea.  Syria and Iraq alone account for more than 30% of total asylum applications.

What happens to asylees once they arrive in the country in which they apply for asylum?  Overall, 25% of asylum cases in the EU were approved in 2013, led by Malta and Italy.  Again, the applications were concentrated in wealthy countries: Germany, Italy, France, and Sweden accounted for two-thirds of asylum applications.  Nearly a quarter of asylum seekers eventually returned to their home countries, either through voluntary repatriation schemes or deportation.

There are proposals in the EU today to do the equivalent of building a fence.  While such measures might reduce the number of asylum seekers arriving on Europe’s shores, they will simply shift the bulk of the problem elsewhere, to places even less prepared.  The world must be ready to act together, and to deal with some unsavory characters if necessary, to help alleviate the refugee crisis.

For more, see “Europe’s Asylum Seekers and the Global Refugee Challenge,” Brookings, April 23, 2015,

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