Europe’s unauthorized immigrant population peaks in 2016, then levels off: New estimates find half live in Germany and the United Kingdom
By Phillip Connor and Jeffrey S. Passel
Europe has experienced a high level of immigration in recent years, driving debate about how countries should deal with immigrants when it comes to social services, security issues, deportation policies and integration efforts. Among these recently arrived immigrants are many who live in Europe without authorization. Coupled with unauthorized immigrants who were already in Europe, their numbers reach into the millions, though together they make up a small share of Europe’s total population.
A new Pew Research Center analysis based on European data sources estimates that at least 3.9 million unauthorized immigrants – and possibly as many as 4.8 million – lived in Europe in 2017. The total is up from 2014, when 3.0 million to 3.7 million unauthorized migrants lived in Europe, but is little changed from a recent peak of 4.1 million to 5.3 million in 2016.
Overall, unauthorized immigrants accounted for less than 1% of Europe’s total population of more than 500 million people living in the 28 European Union member states, including the United Kingdom, and four European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland). And among the roughly 24 million noncitizens of EU-EFTA countries living in Europe, fewer than one-fifth were unauthorized immigrants in 2017.
The recent rise in Europe’s long-standing unauthorized immigrant population from nations outside of EU-EFTA countries is largely due to a surge of asylum seekers who mostly arrived in 2015, when more than 1.3 million people applied for asylum in EU-EFTA countries. Many from that wave have been approved to remain in Europe. Many others, however, have had their applications rejected. Some have appealed those denials. Still others whose applications were rejected or withdrawn continue to live in Europe.
Meanwhile, many asylum seekers in Europe are still awaiting a decision on their pending application, a group that is part of our estimates, and accounted for nearly a quarter (20% to 24%) of Europe’s unauthorized immigrant population in 2017. Although asylum seekers waiting for a decision have a temporary legal standing, their future in Europe is uncertain. Most entered their country of residence without permission, and the majority of applicants are now seeing their applications rejected. Consequently, many have been or could be subject to deportation orders in the future.
Since asylum seekers waiting for a decision have a temporary lawful status, the Center also produced estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population without this group. These estimates are lower – 2.9 million to 3.8 million in 2017 – yet still show an apparent increase from 2014 before the asylum seeker surge, when the unauthorized immigrant population without asylum seekers waiting for a decision was an estimated 2.4 million to 3.2 million. (For estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population in Europe and by country without waiting asylum seekers, see Appendix C.)
Unauthorized immigrants made up roughly one-fifth (16% to 20%) of Europe’s total non-EUEFTA population in 2017, according to estimates, with 4% being unauthorized immigrants with a pending asylum claim that year. This means authorized non-EU-EFTA citizens living in Europe outnumbered unauthorized immigrants by about four to one.
The Center’s new estimates come at a time when publics across Europe express mixed opinions on the place of immigrants in their societies. A 2018 multi-nation survey from the Center found that majorities in several European countries support the deportation of immigrants living in their countries illegally. On the other hand, when asked about refugees fleeing war and violence, the 2018 survey also found that majorities across Europe support taking them in, a group that has often entered Europe without permission and claims asylum.
This is the first time Pew Research Center has estimated the size of Europe’s unauthorized migrant population. The methodology used for these new estimates builds on the Center’s more than 15 years of experience in estimating the size of the unauthorized immigrant population in the United States. The unauthorized immigrant population in the U.S. is more than double the size (10.3 million to 10.7 million in 2017) of that in Europe (3.9 million to 4.8 million); has been decreasing in number since 2007; and makes up a larger share of the total population (roughly 3% in the U.S. compared with less than 1% in Europe). (See our related blog post for more details on how unauthorized immigrant populations and their characteristics differ between Europe and the U.S.)
The Center’s estimates are also the first comprehensive estimate for Europe in a decade. Europe’s unauthorized migrant population was last estimated for 2008 by an EU-funded team of European researchers called the Clandestino project. At that time, the number living in the EU was estimated to be 1.9 million to 3.8 million, not including asylum seekers with pending decisions. By comparison, our estimate for 2017 for EU countries only, excluding asylum seekers with a pending application, is 2.8 million to 3.7 million – the upper end of Clandestino’s 2008 estimate.