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A flood of refugees, or a drop in the bucket? UNHCR’s Asylum Trends 2013 report contextualised

March 31, 2014

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nation’s main refugee agency, released its Asylum Trends 2013 report ten days ago (March 21). This report examines data on asylum seekers to 44 industrialised countries, including most European countries, the United States and Canada, as well as some countries in East Asia and the Pacific. The report’s core finding is that the rich world saw more than a quarter increase in asylum claims in 2013 over the previous year.

The news coverage of UNHCR’s findings echoed the report’s main talking points, which highlight the increasing numbers of asylum seekers to industrialised nations, their apparent affinity for Europe, and the palpable spike in Syrian applicants. Agence France-Presse’s story ran under the heading, “Syria asylum claims in rich nations more than double in 2013.” Reuters chose “Embargoed: Syrians are main asylum seekers in rich world – UN”, while Al Jazeera English published the Associated Press’ file with the subhead “Syria, Russia and Afghanistan have the highest numbers of people fleeing their homelands, and most choose Europe.”

The report, which relies on self-declared data, found that the 44 industrialised countries received a total of 612,730 requests for asylum in 2013. This represents a 28 percent increase over the 479,470 applications filed to these same countries in 2012. The 28 countries of the European Union were recipient to nearly two-thirds of these applications, a 32 percent increase from a year earlier. The primary driver for this surge, according to UNHCR, was the crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic (henceforth, Syria). It was the country of origin for 9.4 percent of the applicants, the single largest group of asylum seekers in 2013. Other major countries of origin last year were the Russian Federation (6.7%), Afghanistan (6.5%), and Iraq (6.4%).

The framing of the news coverage highlighted above, while technically accurate, misplaces the emphasis. The numbers may appear large and the increase rapid, but they are actually quite small in comparison to the scale of the crises from which they originate. The simple reality is that the vast majority of people who could greatly benefit from the protections of asylum are not applying for it in Europe or in any other industrialised country. They live and work as refugees in countries that neighbour their own, or make do while trapped within their national borders, often as ‘internally displaced people’ who are far from home.

There is no more fitting example of this today than Syria itself. Syrian nationals lodged 56,400 asylum applications in 2013. This was “more than double the number of 2012 (25,200 claims) and six times more than in 2011 (8,500 claims),” according to UNHCR’s report.

However, since the outbreak of violence in March 2011, the population of Syrian refugees has grown exponentially. As can be seen from Table 1 below, while Syrian asylum applications approximately tripled between 2011 and 2012, there was a 17-fold increase in the number of refugees between March and December 2012 alone. Asylum applications doubled again from 2012 to 2013, whereas the number of refugees rose four-and-a-half fold, to 2.3 million Syrians living in neighbouring countries by the end of 2013.

Table 1 – Syrian Asylum Applications vs. Syrian Refugee Populations
No. of Syrian asylum applications[1] Est. # Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries* Ratio
2011 8,500
2012 25,200 30,000 (Mar. 13)[2] 515,061 (Dec. 12)[3] 5% (Dec. 12)
2013 56,400 638,286 (Jan. 15)[4] 1,520,301 (May 16)[5] 2,296,152 (Dec. 12)[6] 2% (Dec. 11)
2014 2,563,434 (Mar. 15)[7]
*Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt. Numbers include those registered with UNHCR and those awaiting registration.

Stated differently, the number of Syrian asylum applications lodged to the rich world in 2013 equalled a mere 2.5 percent of the number of Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries at the end of the year. This, of course, does not include the estimated 6.5 million internally displaced people in Syria today, those who have fled their homes but not crossed borders.[8] That would make the ratio of asylum seekers to total Syrians displaced around two-thirds of one percent (0.64%).

The regional breakdown of these numbers is equally startling. It not only highlights just how few Syrians are actually attempting the asylum route into Europe or other industrialised countries, but it also underscores the overwhelming nature of the crisis for those countries that really have received mass amounts of Syrian refugees. Turkey, as UNHCR’s Director of International Protection Volker Türk pointed out to reporters at a news briefing, has registered more Syrian refugees “than the number of all people who applied for asylum in the industrialised world” last year.[9] Lebanon, a country of around 4 million people, now plays host to nearly a million Syrian refugees. That’s a stunning quarter of Lebanon’s pre-war population.

Table 2 – Regional Breakdown of Syrian Refugees
Country est. # of refugees (Mar. 22, 2014)[7]
Lebanon 962,385
Turkey 634,788
Jordan 584,600
Iraq 226,934
Egypt 135,030
Numbers include those registered with UNHCR and those awaiting registration.

All five of the countries listed in Table 2 maintained more or less open-border policies for Syrians from the start of the conflict in March 2011 until 2013. However, “by mid–2013, all neighbouring countries had either adopted stiff border controls or closed borders with Syria altogether as considerations related to their internal security, political and social stability and over-stretched public resources prevailed.”[10] The implementation of these new controls has so far curtailed, but not ended, the flow of refugees over the borders into these surrounding countries. It has also resulted in large numbers of people remaining stranded on Syria’s borders or otherwise internally displaced within the country.

Rich world governments, such as the United States, have pressed these countries to keep their borders open to those fleeing the violence. For example Anne Richard, of the US Department of State, said in a January 2014 statement to the Congressional Subcommittee on Human Rights that, “We remain concerned that people could be trapped inside Syria, as at times, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq have taken steps to control or slow the inflow of these refugees. We have asked all of the countries neighbouring Syria to maintain ‘open border’ policies so that those who need to flee can do so.”[11]

Table 3 – Top–20 Receivers of Syrian Refugees Featured in Asylum Trends 2013’*[12]
Country Total Country Total
Sweden 16,317 France 1,291
Germany 11,851 Romania 1,016
Bulgaria 4,447 Hungary 960
Netherlands 2,673 Belgium 944
United Kingdom 2,032 Norway 841
Austria 1,991 Spain 725
Switzerland 1,852 Italy 695
Denmark 1,702 Cyprus 562
United States** 1,546 Canada 493
Serbia*** 1,362 Greece 485
* Excluding Turkey (see Table 2) **US data for Jan-Sept. 2013 only ***Serbia and Kosovo

However, with few exceptions these same countries have not felt the need to practice what they preach. While it’s true that European countries have largely allowed Syrians to stay once they make it onto European soil – some 41,695 decisions were positive for Syrian refugees between March 2011 and December 2013, a 86.7% success rate – these same countries have also gone to great lengths to prevent refugees from coming to Europe in the first place.[13] In this way they seek to preclude the ability of many more individuals to apply for sanctuary. Moreover, 41,695, as a proportion of the refugee population at the end of December 2013, is but a drop in the bucket; a mere 1.8 percent.

There is little sign that European attitudes will soften in the coming year, even as the conflict in Syria continues to spiral south. The European Union had, by last December, pledged a mere 12,340 places for Syrians in resettlement or temporary protection programmes as part of a UNHCR drive, according to an Amnesty International report.[14] Of these, 10,000 were pledged by a single country: Germany. This means only 2,340 were pledged by the other 27 member states combined, and according to the same report 18 member states have failed to make any pledges at all.

The result of this, as MPC Director Philippe Fargues wrote last month in a policy brief, is that: “Before the uprisings, there had always been a regular flow of Syrians seeking asylum in Europe. … But Europe did not open the door to refugees in proportion to their flight from Syria and its share of the overall refugee flows fell from 29.4 percent in 2011 to 4.1 percent in 2012, to a measly 2.3 percent in 2013.” As I showed above, depending on the statistics you use this proportion might actually be even lower.

The sentiments of Fargues and myself were echoed by MEP Hélène Flautre last year in an interview for the Migration Policy Centre’s website on the Syrian Refugee Crisis. “We ask neighbouring countries to open their borders, but we don’t do the same? There is a word for this: egoism,” Flautre said.

Until now, aid has gone to policing the Greek-Turkish border in order to contain the potential arrival of asylum seekers from Syria. We have deployed 1800 policemen, have 26 floating barriers in the Aegean Sea and have set up 12 kilometres of barbed wire at the border. About 20 migrants drowned in December around the island of Lesbos. This is simply an embarrassment for Europe – deadly and indecent politics. [Read the Complete Interview]

According to UNHCR’s Statistical Yearbook for 2012,[15] the year in which MEP Flautre was interviewed, Greece received 275 asylum applications from Syrians. It rejected more than half, ‘otherwise closed’ most of the remainder, and accepted between one and four of them (UNHCR statistics do not distinguish between numbers smaller than five). Statistics for the acceptance rate of applications in 2013 have not been released yet – Asylum Trends 2013 only regards the number of applications filed – but given that Greece only received 485 applications last year from Syrians (see Table 3), it seems clear that refugees understand they will not find succour there.

Some countries have offered a warmer welcome than that of Greece, and as I already said those Syrians who make it to Europe are usually able to receive at least temporary protection. Special mention must go to both Sweden and Germany, the two countries which now house two-thirds of the EU’s Syrian refugee population. Sweden took the unusual step last September of offering permanent residence to all Syrian refugees who file for asylum there, however to date no other country has followed suit.[16] Germany, for its part, has given positive decisions to 80 percent of Syrian claims filed on its territory since the crisis began.[13] As I mentioned earlier, Germany also pledged 10,000 of the EU’s total 12,340 spaces (so far) for UNHCR’s drive to find resettlement areas for Syrians.

The efforts of Sweden and Germany notwithstanding, the fact remains that the rich world has resoundingly let the burden of the Syrian catastrophe fall on countries, with the partial exception of Turkey, that do not have the means, infrastructure, or political stability bear it sustainably.

The Syrian crisis is now entering its fourth year. The most recent update to the UNHCR’s response plan (RRP6) estimates that by end–2014 there will be 4.1 million Syrian refugees residing in countries neighbouring Syria. To meet this challenge it has requested USD 4.2 billion from donors, one of the largest appeals for humanitarian aid in history. This money, without doubt, will largely come from the treasuries of the 44 industrialised nations that were covered in the Asylum Trends 2013 report.

However, money alone, even at such a scale, is simply not enough. The European Union must open its doors wider to Syrian refugees. It can do this, on the one hand, by continuing to grant predominantly positive decisions to the asylum applications of Syrian refugees. On the other, it can work to facilitate and process Syrian asylum applications filed from both inside and outside their borders. This would reduce refugees’ reliance on human smugglers and dangerous crossings to reach European soil, thereby preventing tragedies such as the drownings off the Island of Lesbos from repeating themselves.

Cameron Thibos is a research assistant at the Migration Policy Centre who specialises on migration issues in Turkey and the Arab world. You can find out more about him at www.cameronthibos.com.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily the views of the Migration Policy Centre.


  1. Asylum Trends 2013’, UNHCR
  2. UNHCR appoints regional refugee coordinator for Syrian refugees’, UNHCR, 13 March 2012. 
  3. Syria Regional Response Plan – January to June 2013’, UNHCR
  4. Syria Regional Refugee Response Update Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt’, UNHCR, 17 January 2013. 
  5. Syria Regional Response Plan – January to December 2013’, United Nations, 7 June 2013. 
  6. Syria Crisis Monthly Humanitarian Report’, UNICEF, 29 November – 12 December 2013. 
  7. Syria Crisis Monthly Humanitarian Report’, UNICEF, 17 February – 22 March 2014. 
  8. Humanitarian Bulletin Syrian Arab Republic’, OCHA, 44, 27 February – 12 March 2014. 
  9. EMBARGOED – Syrians are main asylum seekers in rich world -UN’, Reuters, 21 March 2014. 
  10. Humanitarian Implementation Plan (HIP) Syria Crisis (ECHO/WWD/BUD/2014/01000) Last update: 15/10/2013 Version 1’, European Commission Humanitarian Aid department, p.3. 
  11. Anne Richard’s, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, US Department of State, testimony to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on the Syrian Refugee Crisis’, January 7, 2014. 
  12. Asylum Trends 2013, Statistical Annex: Table 6’, UNHCR
  13. Philippe Fargues, ‘Policy Brief: Europe must take on its share of the Syrian refugee burden, but how?’, Migration Policy Centre, 14 February 2014. 
  14. An International Failure: The Syrian Refugee Crisis’, Amnesty International, 13 December 2013.
  15. UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2012, 12th edition – Statistical Annex, Table 12’, UNHCR. 
  16. Sweden’s asylum offer to refugees from Syria’, BBC. 23 October 2014. 

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