The Number of Refugees Coming to Europe

Last year, more asylum-seekers arrived in the European Union across the Mediterranean than ever before. The EU has now cut off the most important route across the Aegean -- and the number of arrivals has dropped significantly.

Has the Period of Massive Flight Now Passed?

On the contrary, as a look across the EU's external border shows. There have never been as many people fleeing their homes in the world as there are today. Statistics from the UN Refugee Agency show that, in the countries surrounding Europe, the number of displaced persons increased much earlier and more significantly than in Europe itself. And only a fraction of those taking flight have thus far opted for the dangerous path to the EU.

Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons at the Gates of Europe

How Europe Has Closed Itself Off

People began fleeing to the EU across the Mediterranean in the 1990s. Since then, Europe has continually strengthened its external borders. By sealing itself off, Europe has come into conflict with its own principles: The EU recognizes the fundamental right to asylum. Yet there are effectively no longer any legal paths to applying for asylum. To protect its borders, the EU has also relied on dubious partners.

© Juan Medina/Reuters


Border officials patrol the Mediterranean with warships and airplanes. Refugee boats have allegedly been repeatedly forced back illegally. To avoid the patrols, migrant smugglers have chosen increasingly dangerous routes.

© Giorgio Perottino/Reuters


In the past, member states already massively increased security on the EU's external borders. Now, fences have been constructed inside the EU: Austria is planning a border facility on the Brenner Pass, the most important border crossing with Italy.


The EU has established treaties with several countries in Africa and the Middle East. These third countries agree to prevent asylum-seekers from continuing their journeys or to reaccept rejected asylum applicants -- and receive EU money in exchange. Yet the human rights situations in these countries is often dismal.

New Routes to Europe

The Mediterranean is not the only route refugees use to reach Europe. But it is a particularly dangerous one. In 2015 alone, 3,770 people died off the coastlines of Europe. The EU has blocked the shortest paths to Europe, and for each route the EU has blocked, migrant smugglers have found alternatives. Most of them have been even riskier. Now, the path across the Aegean has likewise been blocked. And once again, refugees must use more dangerous routes.

Central Mediterranean

From Libya, Tunisia or Egypt to the Italian coast: Most asylum-seekers used this route until 2014. Now, the EU border protection agency Frontex believes it could once again come into focus. Since the beginning of 2016, the number of arrivals in Italy has risen.

People from African countries like Gambia and Eritrea, in particular, have recently used the route. There are fewer refugees from the Middle East, partly because Syrians can no longer enter Libya without a visa.

The route from Libya is particularly dangerous. The country is beset by civil war and Islamic State is also active. Refugees become victims of forced labor and targeted violence. For the voyage to Europe, migrant smugglers put refugees on boats that are unseaworthy: They allow for the fact that European patrols intercept the refugees and then destroy the small ships.

Eastern Europe

Stranded: More than 57,000 people are holding out along the Balkan Route, most of them in Greece.

Since Macedonia sealed off its border, more than 8,000 people have used the path from Greece across Bulgaria. Should Bulgaria also close off its borders, only the difficult route through the mountains to Albania and from there across the sea to Italy would be left.

The route has a history: After the fall of the communist regime, tens of thousands of Albanians fled to Western Europe by ship in 1991. Otherwise, the narrow sea is mostly used as a drug smuggling route.

Paths Out of Turkey

More than 2 million refugees now live in Turkey, most of them in dire poverty and without the possibility to work. Now, the sea route to Greece is blocked.

They could shift to the land route to Bulgaria, across the Black Sea to Romania or to the maritime route to Italy. But the borders to Bulgaria and Romania are considered to be strictly guarded.

The overseas route to Italy is long and expensive, and recently achieved dubious notoriety. Starting in late 2014, migrant smugglers several times packed hundreds of refugees onto container ships and then steered them into Italian waters without crews by auto pilot. The Turkish authorities took severe action against the unmanned ships, thus contributing to the shifting of flight routes to the Aegean.

"History has shown that as long as there are crises and war and Europe promises a better life, people will try to come here."
-- Fabrice Leggeri, head of Frontex

"Even if you build fences to the heavens, we will overcome them."
Alfa from Mauritania, refugee at the fence in Calais