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Asylum seekers in Europe: where do people go and why?

As millions of people cross dangerous terrain to seek refuge in Europe, understanding the factors that drive them to go to particular places is crucial. It is also important to assess whether certain policies in destination countries deter or attract asylum seekers.

Refugee inflows since 2015 have presented a serious challenge for the countries of the European Union (EU), including the UK, now a former member. Many have welcomed the flows of asylum seekers, while some have raised concerns about the burden and potential costs of hosting refugees.

On a humanitarian level, images of families in boats risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea, and then struggling to reach their intended destination, have haunted the public. These images raise questions about the destination choices of asylum seekers and what drives these decisions.

First-time asylum seekers are concentrated in a few European countries (see Figure 1). Germany, the UK, Sweden, Italy and France attract the majority of people seeking asylum for the first time. In the UK, the number of asylum seekers has increased from 42,000 in 2019 to 75,000 in 2023.

But there is also variation over time in terms of the share and the number of first-time asylum seekers even among these countries. For example, Germany received 60% of the EU’s first-time asylum applications in 2016, but only 21% in 2019.

When looking at the total number of first-time asylum applications between 2008 and 2019, Figure 2 highlights the top destination countries in the EU and the main countries of origin of asylum seekers.

The data show that asylum seekers mostly originated from countries afflicted by war and civil conflict, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria.

Figure 1: The share of EU first-time asylum applications by destination and year, 2008-20

Source: Authors’ calculations based on Eurostat data on asylum protection and managed migration.
Note: Figure 1 shows the annual share of EU first-time asylum applications by destination country and year.

Figure 2: Total numbers of first-time asylum seekers during the period 2008-19, by origin and EU destination



Source: Authors’ calculations based on Eurostat data on asylum protection and managed migration.
Note: Each figure refers to the total value in the time span under consideration (2008-19); all values are expressed in thousands.

Even among EU countries, there are differences in terms of the reception of asylum seekers, as well as in their policies on refugees.

Some host countries have been less welcoming and have introduced more restrictive policies. For example, only a few EU host countries allow asylum seekers immediate access to the labour market, while most of them enforce a ban period that varies between two and 12 months.

Others only grant access to employment opportunities once the asylum claim has been accepted. Despite little evidence on the effectiveness of such a policy, destination countries apply this measure as a deterrent.

There are also substantial differences in terms of the processing time and success rate of asylum applications, which may also influence the destination choice.

At the same time, little is known about whether asylum seekers’ destination choice is shaped by economic factors in the host country (such as GDP per capita or unemployment rate) or by welfare systems and social spending, all of which are known to play a role as determinants of economic migration.

Further, it is still not clear to what extent social networks, rather than policies, matter in driving the destination choices of first-time asylum seekers. Understanding the social and economic factors that shape people’s decisions about making the often perilous journey from their country of origin is critical for designing better policies to support asylum seekers.

Economic conditions

Economic conditions in destination countries, as well as geographical and cultural ties between them and origin countries play a major part in attracting potential economic migrants.

Typically, migrants choose to move to countries that have higher income (measured by GDP per capita) and where unemployment is low. Geographical and cultural proximity – typically measured in terms of common language and previous colonial ties – are also important pull factors.

In the case of asylum seekers, economic factors – especially unemployment levels – are also important in determining destination choices. Geographical and cultural proximity play an important role in deciding where asylum seekers go within Europe, but these traditional pull factors are not the main determinants.

Welfare systems

Another potential influence on asylum seekers’ decisions is the generosity of the welfare state in the destination country. A widespread concern in EU countries – often exploited in the political discourse of far-right and populist parties – is that immigrants are attracted to a generous welfare system.

To measure welfare generosity, it is possible to use the share of GDP spent on social programmes. But in many cases, migrants and asylum seekers do not enjoy the same welfare benefits as natives.

As a result, using a measure of asylum seekers’ access to social protection can offer a clearer understanding of the role of welfare in informing migration choices. This can be done by looking at policy changes in destination countries that are specifically targeted at improving or deterring access to social security.

Doing so shows that there is a positive correlation between welfare generosity and access to welfare benefits and the number of asylum applicants, but that these correlations are not very strong.

Application processing time and success rate

The efficiency of the asylum application process varies substantially among EU countries. For example, over the period 2008-20, the average time taken to process applications was eight months.

Germany’s processing time is close to this average (nine months), but this can take much longer in some other countries (for example, 17 months in Austria and 17.5 in Belgium).

Looking at repatriation risk, which measures the likelihood of receiving an order to leave, is also useful. According to the data, higher recognition rate (success rate) and lower processing time have a positive association with the inflow of asylum applicants. In short, asylum seekers are more likely to travel to a destination where they think they can gain asylum relatively quickly, with a lower risk of rejection.

Access to jobs

A key policy that has been used as a potential deterrent by many countries is the employment ban on asylum seekers. EU countries have different policies on access to the labour market for asylum seekers.

Some, such as Croatia, Greece and Sweden, do not impose bans on employment, while others do but for varying durations (that is, the length of time for which asylum seekers with a pending application are not allowed to enter the job market).

Over the past two decades, the average length of an employment ban was 7.2 months. While Portugal has a one month ban, Austria and Ireland do not allow asylum seekers to access work until a final decision on their application has been taken. In 2015, Germany and Italy introduced policy changes to reduce the duration of their bans (from nine to three months and from six to two months, respectively). The UK has a 12-month employment ban.

There is little evidence on the effectiveness of these employment bans on deterring asylum seekers.

Personal and social networks

Another key determinant of migration flows is the extent of migrant networks within destination countries. Such networks provide arriving migrants with important sources of information and support.

Many studies find strong evidence on the role of social networks in influencing destination choice. There is a very strong correlation between the current number of asylum seekers and social networks in a country (the latter is measured using previous asylum applications).

This correlation is stronger relative to the other factors considered. For example, the correlation is five times larger than the effect of social spending on destination country choice, and four times larger than the effect of an employment ban. In other words, asylum seekers are more likely to go where other asylum seekers from the same country of origin have been before them.

Social networks play this crucial role because they are likely to provide information about the destination country as well as help on arrival. This may be particularly important for asylum seekers, who are particularly vulnerable compared with other types of migrants.


Some of the policies introduced in the UK and the EU to deter asylum seekers do not seem to be particularly effective.

For example, policies that restrict access to the welfare system or to the labour market have modest impact, and therefore are not very effective in terms of reducing the number of asylum applicants.

In particular, banning asylum seekers from employment leads them to become more dependent on public spending in the short term, and could result in exploitation from criminal organisations or rogue employers breaking the law. Such policies could also lead to negative long-term effects with respect to integration.

Lifting employment bans, such as that in place in the UK, would seem to be more cost effective and better for the integration of refugees in the long term.

These findings are relevant to current UK policy. In particular, the evidence suggests that current policies aimed at deterring asylum seekers (such as the employment ban) are not effective.

Indeed, asylum seekers are typically not even aware of the host country’s various policies that are applicable to them once they arrive. Instead, people follow in the footsteps of their families, friends and acquaintances, rather than seeking out particular economic conditions.

This raises a challenge for governments that would like to be seen to deter asylum seekers.

Asylum rights and benefits should be used to protect asylum seekers from vulnerability and exploitation, enabling them to integrate if their applications are successful.

It is also important that there are channels for applying for asylum that do not rely on people risking their lives making dangerous journeys and ensuring that traffickers do not exploit desperate people for their own monetary benefits.

At the same time, asylum seekers’ applications should be processed quickly and efficiently to ensure that asylum is granted to those who need it, and that the asylum system is not used as a back door for illegal migration.

Understanding the factors affecting choice of destination is a first step towards helping policy-makers design better schemes for asylum seekers.

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Authors: Valentina Di Iasio (University of Southampton) and Jackline Wahba (University of Southampton)
Picture by Tony Studio on iStock
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