26 June 2019

European Union Accounts for Almost Half of Global Asylum Applications


Given the recent debate on migration, we focus on one particular aspect: asylum applications. Asylum is granted because of personal persecution, not economic considerations. The Cartagena Declaration defines circumstances that warrant asylum to include “threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order.” We obtain and summarize data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR provides data on an annual binational basis, e.g., asylum applications from Syria to Germany in 2015. It is a finer spatial resolution than most other datasets, and the largest spatial extent, as it has global coverage in 222 source and 188 target countries.


We split asylum application by target regions into three mutually exclusive subgroups: whether the target country was (i) the European Union (EU); (ii) OECD countries that are not part of the European Union; and (iii) all remaining countries (ROW). The majority of asylum applications in the last 15 years went to developed countries: 63 percent of applicants chose a target country in the EU or OECD, with almost half going to the European Union. Most of the applications to the European Union and OECD countries come from non-neighbors, while 86 percent of the applications in the ROW come from neighboring countries, when refugees cross the contiguous border.


Asylum applications were fairly steady at roughly 1 million a year from 2000 to 2013, but then spiked to 3 million in 2015. When we compare total immigration as reported by the OECD with total asylum applications to the same OECD countries when they report both data (online Appendix Figure A2), we find that average asylum applications (roughly 500,000 per year in 2000–2014) were one-tenth of the reported average annual immigration (5 million per year). While the large majority of applicants choose a target country in the European Union, this region has the lowest acceptance rate at 13 percent. The ratio is twice as high for other OECD countries and more than twice as high for ROW countries. Spikes in applications lead to higher acceptance rates in the EU: the acceptance rate for the extra (anomalous) applications is 29 percent, more than twice as high as the baseline average of 13 percent. This is consistent with a story where positive deviations in applications from the country mean and time trend are due to a humanitarian crisis and hence more likely to be accepted.

Wolfram Schlenker
Columbia University
Missirian, A, and W Schlenker.  2017.  "Asylum Applications and Migration Flows."  American Economic Review 107(5): 436-440.  https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.p20171051.