Europe is experiencing unprecedented numbers of migrants and refugees seeking to enter irregularly at its land and sea borders. This surge in numbers is due, in large part, to conflicts in Syria and Libya from which millions of people have fled. Attempts to find a regional solution have been marred by the deaths of thousands of people.

Key statistics

  • In 2014, 218,000 migrants and refugees made their way to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, almost three times the previous annual record of about 70,000 in 2011. Between 1998 and 2013, an average of 44,000 people per year entered Europe across the Mediterranean.

  • So far in 2015, around 300,000 people have entered Europe across the Mediterranean, including almost 200,000 people in Greece and 110,000 in Italy. 62% of these boat arrivals are from refugee-producing countries Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan.

  • In 2014, Europe received a record 714,300 asylum applications, compared to 485,000 claims in 2013. The previous record was 672,000 applications in 1992.

  • Last year, 3279 people died seeking to cross the Mediterranean. So far in 2015, 2373 people have died attempting the same crossing.

By way of comparison, at its peak in 2012‑2013, the number of asylum seekers who came to Australia by boat reached 25,173. In the same period, approximately 700 asylum seekers died at sea.

Key events

  • 30 October 2014: Italian maritime search and rescue service, Operation Mare Nostrum, ends.

  • 18 April 2015: more than 800 people die in a shipwreck while trying to reach Europe from Libya, the deadliest attempted migration incident on the Mediterranean on record.

  • 23 April 2015: European Union leaders agree to align their approach to four priority areas: strengthening their presence at sea; fighting ‘traffickers’ in accordance with international law; preventing illegal migration flows; and reinforcing internal solidarity and responsibility.

  • 13 May 2015: The European Commission adopts the European Agenda on Migration.

  • 27 August 2015: Two boats carrying about 500 migrants sink after leaving Zuwara in Libya.

  • 28 August 2015: The bodies of 71 migrants are found in a truck in Vienna, Austria.

Policy responses

At the European Union level, the increase in irregular migration has tested the Dublin system, under which asylum seekers are required to apply for protection in the first European Union country that they reach. As most asylum seekers arrive in Greece or Italy – countries under strain from the global financial crisis  – many move on immediately to northern European countries.

Among individual countries, responses to the crisis have been mixed. Sweden and Germany have committed to accepting generous numbers of refugees, especially from Syria. Germany expects to process up to 800,000 asylum applications this year. In contrast to Australia, Europe does not have a policy of boat turnbacks, offshore processing or offshore resettlement.

European Commission, European Agenda on Migration

International Organization for Migration Missing Migrants Project

Kaldor Centre, European approaches to migration in the Mediterranean

New York Times, The Global Refugee Crisis, Region by Region

Philippe Fargues and Anne di Bartolomeo, Drowned Europe (Migration Policy Centre, 2015)

UNHCR, Global Trends 2014 (2015)

UNHCR, Asylum Trends 2014: Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries (2015)


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Last updated 2 September 2015