Migration to the EU: facts, not perceptions

In 2022, almost 3.7 million new residence permits were issued in European Union (EU) Member States – not including the influx from Ukraine – compared to 2.9 million in 2021 and three million in 2019. There were 875,000 new asylum applications, still not counting Ukrainian applicants, Eurostat said, up 52% compared to 2021 and 38% compared to 2019.

To mark International Migrants Day on 18 December, UNRIC delves into the significance of these figures. Data from Eurostat, the European Commission and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN agency, provide a clearer picture of migration in the EU, focusing on facts rather than perceptions.

5.3% of non-EU citizens in the EU

As of 1 January 2022, there were 23.8 million non-EU citizens residing in the EU, representing 5.3% of the 27-nation bloc’s 447 million inhabitants. Three-quarters of them live in Germany, Spain, France and Italy.

If people with EU citizenship are included, there are now 38 million people born outside the EU living in it, or 8.5% of the population.

If EU citizens are added, who themselves migrate between their different countries, the share of all foreign nationals living in the bloc rises to 12.5%. This is lower than in most high-income countries such as Switzerland (30.2% non-nationals), Australia (29.2%), Iceland (20.1%), Norway (16.1%) or the United States (13.5%).

The overwhelming majority of migration is regular

Ola Henrikson, IOM’s Regional Director in Brussels, explains that the figures on irregular  immigration, even if they make headlines, should be put into perspective: “Let’s compare the figures for Europe to the estimated 281 million migrants worldwide in 2020, and 36.4 million refugees in 2023. Of this total, the overwhelming majority travel by safe means and follow regular routes.”

As of 27 November 2023, IOM has recorded 264,000 irregular entries into the EU by land or sea, compared to nearly 190,000 in 2022 and 150,000 in 2021 (accounting for 6.6% of the migration flow to Europe from other parts of the world in the same year).

Europe is also a land of emigration

In 2021, 2.26 million people migrated to the EU from another continent, according to the European Commission. This is in contrast to the 2.9 million residence permits issued in the same year, administrative procedures that also reflect previous arrivals.

This is lower than the 2.5 million people who migrated from the EU in the same year, either to go elsewhere in the world (1.12 million) or to change countries within the EU’s borders (1.4 million).

In addition, 13.7 million people in the bloc are EU citizens living in another EU member state. Luxembourg has the highest share of non-nationals in its population (47.1%), but also the largest share of migrants from other European countries (91% of the total in 2021).

In four EU countries, Croatia, Greece, Lithuania and Romania, emigration is higher than immigration.

“A subject more often presented as a problem than an opportunity”

“Migration in itself is not a dramatic event, but rather an ordinary one,” says Henrikson. “Many Europeans are migrants themselves, or have studied outside their country, which we are used to. Certain groups of arrivals, although a minority, receive a lot of attention, such as asylum-seekers and irregular immigrants. And rightly so, as many die along the way, on dangerous sea routes, which raise questions about rescue, while criminals and traffickers are involved.” IOM plays an important role in this regard, including addressing missing persons in the Mediterranean.

However, the media prism obscures more ordinary and positive parts of migration, which also generates economic growth and development support (with remittances to their countries of origin). “The subject is mostly approached as a problem and not as an opportunity,” explains IOM’s Regional Director in Brussels. “The way migration is evoked leads to focalisation: there are more ‘clicks’ when talking about people dying in the Mediterranean than about Georgians who come to work in construction in Germany.”

Without migration, Europe’s population would be declining

Without inward migration flows, the EU’s population would have declined by 500,000 people in 2019, according to the European Commission, as deaths outnumber births. In 2020 and 2021, years of the Covid-19 pandemic, the EU’s population declined, due to these two factors and lower net migration.

“Demography is an increasingly important challenge,” says Henrikson. “Europe’s ageing population is putting pressure on pension systems and people in the EU are moving from East to West to fill vacancies. National legislation varies, with some countries having bilateral agreements. Situations are changing: in Sweden, agricultural workers no longer come from Bulgaria, because wages are no longer attractive, but from Viet Nam and Thailand.”

Migrants help fill labour shortages

In 2022, 9.93 million non-EU citizens worked within the borders of EU, i.e. 5.1% of the workforce. The employment rate is better for Europeans (77%) than for non-Europeans (62%), which points to “structural barriers and discrimination, but also the existence of a black market that is taboo,” says Paola Alvarez, IOM’s Regional Specialist on Labour Mobility and Social Inclusion.

This informal market is not limited to agricultural tasks: it extends to manufacturing, textiles, delivery services, and restaurants and hotels.

In 2022, non-EU workers were over-represented in some sectors, including hotels and restaurants (which employs 11.3% of non-EU workers compared to 4.2% of all workers in the EU), construction (9.1% compared to 6.6%), administrative and support services such as call centres, logistics and distribution (7.6% compared to 3.9%) and domestic work (5.9% compared to 0.7%).

Essential services, which have come to light during the Covid-19 pandemic, employ immigrants in particular. “While most of the discussion in Europe is about ‘selective immigration’ of highly skilled people, it is not clear that the market only needs PhDs,” Henrikson said. The EU is aware of this, and is trying to adapt its regulations to attract health care and “personal care” professionals, in order to meet the support needs of the elderly.

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