Blog post

EU migration crisis: facts, figures and disappointments

Attempts to stem the flow of refugees to Europe have so far had little success. Two months into 2016, we take a detailed look at the numbers of the re

Publishing date
12 February 2016
Silvia Merler

Read this post in German on Makronom.


EU leaders have been slow to react to the refugee crisis, but refugees continue to arrive in Europe in large numbers.

Last year more than a million people crossed the Mediterranean Sea in the attempt to reach Europe, nearly 4000 of them dying on the way. The number of refugees crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece increased 20 times from 2014 to 2015. Arrivals in Italy decreased but only slightly, from 170,100 in 2014 to 153,842 in 2015.

The number of refugees crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece increased 20 times from 2014 to 2015.

The Syrian conflict has left 13.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. 6.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced by violence and 4.6 million people are estimated to have fled the country (UNOCHA).

As of 7th February 2016, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 4.6 million Syrian refugees are in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the rest of North Africa. Turkey has the largest share with 1.9 million people.

The origins of refugees

Overall, 48% of the refugees that managed to cross the Mediterranean were Syrian, 21% were Afghans, 9% Iraqi and 4% Eritreans.  Most refugees arriving in Greece in 2015 were Syrian or Afghan, while Italy received proportionally more people from Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia (figure 1 and 2).

Greece has received 74,052 refugees so far this year, and it is expected that the bulk of refugees will continue to arrive on Greek shores (figure 3).

A UNHCR report, published at the end of January 2016, predicts that up to 1 million refugees and migrants could attempt to use the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Balkan route to Europe in 2016. This is “based on analysis of the current level of arrivals, the push and pull factors affecting the movements, and the situation in countries of origin related to this emergency”.

The situation continues to escalate. Last week 70,000 people were reported to have fled towards the Syrian border with Turkey due to increased conflict around Aleppo.

The Balkan road to Europe

Very few migrants stay in Greece. The number of Syrian asylum applications received by EU countries (plus Norway and Switzerland) reached almost 600,000 at the end of 2015. Germany and Sweden receive over half of all applications, with Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Bulgaria accounting for another 30% (see here for more details).

For migrants and refugees, Greece is the door to the Balkan route to Western and Northern Europe, passing through the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia and Austria.

Greece is the door to the Balkan route to Western and Northern Europe.

Since the UNHCR began monitoring departures from the main entry points into Europe in July 2015, it is estimated that almost 700,000 refugees and migrants have moved from Greece into the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Almost all of them travelled onward to Serbia, attempting to cross the Hungarian border. By the end of 2015, approximately 815,000 had travelled through Serbia, with about 6,500 people entering the country every day in October and November.

In September Hungary took measures to stem the flows of refugees across its border with Serbia, including building a 110 mile long fence. This redirected movement towards the Serbian-Croatian border.

From mid-September 2015, a total of 557,743 refugees and migrants travelled through Croatia, only 21 applying for asylum there.

Most of them moved on to Slovenia. 378,000 people moved through the country between October and December 2015, with only 144 people applying for asylum. Figure 4 shows the transit recorded so far in 2016.

Europe’s response to the refugee crisis: slow and confused

There are rumours that inhabitants of the Greek islands where the refugees first arrive could be nominated for the Nobel peace prize for their “empathy and self-sacrifice”. The overall European response, however, has been slow and disorganised.

EU countries agreed on a relocation scheme to help Greece and Italy deal with the influx of refugees last year. The plan is to relocate 40,000 Syrian and Eritrean nationals, from Italy and Greece to other EU Member States.

In September 2015 it was decided that relocate an additional 120,000 refugees would be from Greece, Hungary and Italy, bringing the total to 160,000 to be relocated over the next two years.

Up to now, however, implementation of the solidarity scheme has been very slow (figure 5). Based on European Commission data, as of 4th February 2016 only 279 people had been relocated from Italy and 202 from Greece, with France and Finland being by far the major recipients.

If relocation continues at the current speed, it will take more than 100 years to achieve the planned relocation from Greece.

This means that if relocation continues at the current speed, it will take 47 years to relocate 39,600 people from Italy and more than 100 years to achieve the planned relocation from Greece.

While this initial slowness might be due to the need to set up the relocation scheme agreed, EU member states are reluctant to share the task ahead of them.

From time to time new confused ideas are floated that could be even more useless than inaction. Greece has been recently given a one month deadline to meet EU norms on refugee policy, while EU Member States have even been discussing whether to send border guards or troops to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (a non-EU country) to seal the border with Greece (an EU country).

This would suggest that rather than pushing for the implementation of the agreed relocation scheme, the new focus is on trapping hundreds of thousands of refugees in a country that currently has the worst economic situation in the EU, potentially creating an explosive situation.

After the EU and Turkey reached a 3 billion euro deal to stem the flows of migrants into Greece, a Dutch-led proposal was floated, pushing for EU volunteer countries to take 250,000 refugees a year from Turkey, if Ankara succeeds in reducing the flows to Greece.

The new focus is on trapping hundreds of thousands of refugees in a country that currently has the worst economic situation in the EU.

However this is less than one third of the number of migrants who crossed the sea last year, so it is doubtful that the scheme could help replace illegal migration with legal migration. Turkey is unenthusiastic about the idea, as it would still need to take care of those who can no longer leave.

These figures give an idea of the scale of the emergency. As the migrant crisis ratchets up the pressure on already flimsy European political cohesion, EU leaders meet to discuss Europe’s response to the refugee crisis on 18-19 February. The world will be watching.


About the authors

  • Silvia Merler

    Silvia Merler, an Italian citizen, is the Head of ESG and Policy Research at Algebris Investments.

    She joined Bruegel as Affiliate fellow at Bruegel in August 2013. Her main research interests include international macro and financial economics, central banking and EU institutions and policy making.

    Before joining Bruegel, she worked as Economic Analyst in DG Economic and Financial Affairs of the European Commission (ECFIN). There she focused on macro-financial stability as well as financial assistance and stability mechanisms, in particular on the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), providing supportive analysis for the policy negotiations.


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