Children in migration - asylum applicants
Data extracted 29 April 2022
Planned article update: 29 April 2023
In 2021, 166 760 first-time asylum applicants were children, representing 31.2% of the total number of first-time asylum applicants recorded in the EU.
The three most represented citizenships in 2021 for first-time asylum applicants under the age of 18 were Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi.
The percentage of positive asylum application decisions was higher for children than for adults over the period from 2011 to 2021.
From 2011 to 2021, unaccompanied minor applicants accounted for 15.3% on average of the total number of first-time asylum applicant aged less than 18.
Number of first-time asylum applicants aged less than 18 years old in the EU, 2011-2021
Among all migrants, children are a particularly vulnerable group requiring special care. Based on available data about asylum and managed migration statistics, this article will focus on developments over the period from 2011 to 2021 of one of the main components of the immigration of children in the European Union (EU) and in EFTA countries: the number of first-time asylum applicants aged less than 18 years old. Asylum statistics collected by Eurostat are based on information from administrative events related to the asylum procedure (applications and decisions).
Main features at EU level in 2021
In 2021, the total number of first-time asylum applicants under the age of 18 in the EU was 166 760 persons. When comparing this figure with the total EU population aged less than 18, it corresponds to 205 first-time applicant children per 100 000 children resident in the EU. Figure 1 also shows that 97 745 children received protected status in 2021 while the asylum applications of 20 965 children were rejected in the final instance. At the end of 2021, 177 425 children were awaiting a decision on their asylum application in the EU.
Figure 2 provides some insights into the characteristics of first-time asylum applicant children for the year 2021: children account for 31.2 % of the total number of first-time asylum applicants recorded in the EU, a majority are male (58.5 %) and 13.9 % of them are unaccompanied minors.
Development from 2011 to 2021
Figure 3 shows the trend over the past ten years of the number of first-time asylum applicant children. The number of first-time asylum applicants aged less than 18 years rose until the peak of the “migration crisis” in 2016, characterised by a multiplication by 6.4 of the value in comparison with 2011. From 2016 onwards, a downward trend is observed with a minimum value in 2020 (it should be taken into account that the drop observed in 2020 may be mostly explained by the COVID-19 outbreak and the related introduction of movement restrictions and border closures). The number of first-time asylum applicant children increased again in 2021 by 37 000 but remained at a lower level than in 2019. Over the period from 2011 to 2021, almost 2 million children lodged a first-time asylum application, which corresponds to 2.4 % of the total EU population aged less than 18.
When looking at the breakdown by Member State (Table 1), the main destination in the EU of first-time asylum applicant children over the whole period from 2011 to 2021 was Germany (46.0 %) followed by France (10.5 %) and Sweden (8.8 %). In 2021, Germany (43.9 %) and France (15.5 %) still remained the two main destinations for first-time asylum applicant children, but this time followed by Austria (6.9 %).
Figure 4 compares the breakdown by Member State observed over the period from 2011 to 2021 and in 2021. The main features are: the increase in the share recorded in 2021 for France, Austria and Spain, and the decrease observed in Sweden, Hungary and, to a lesser extent, Germany.
In order to compare the development of the number of first-time asylum applicants aged less than 18, Table 2 and Figure 5 show the ratio of first-time asylum applicant children per 100 000 inhabitants aged less than 18 years old.
Figure 5 and Table 2 provide a detailed picture of the EU Member States and EFTA countries. The candlesticks in Figure 5 show the average, maximum (higher wick), minimum (lower wick) and latest values of the ratios for each country. A dark blue candlestick indicates that the latest value is higher than the average value, whereas an orange one means that the latest value is lower. Lastly, the length of a candlestick shows the range observed over the whole period.
Figure 5 and Table 2 show the heterogeneity of the development of the number of first-time asylum applicants aged less than 18 in relative terms from 2011 to 2021. For example, during the “migration crisis”, Sweden, Hungary, Austria, Germany and Greece recorded a ratio between 3 and almost 8 times higher than the maximum value observed for the EU over the period 2011 to 2021. This shows that they were the Member States most impacted in relative terms by the migration crisis. Nevertheless, the latest values for these countries, except Germany (533) and Austria (742), are lower than 500 and all of them are below the average recorded over the period examined. Conversely, for Member States with a low ratio, it can be seen that in eight Member States, the maximum value of the ratio was lower than 100. The recorded value in 2021 is lower than the average value in 13 Member States (orange candlesticks), with a significant difference observed in Sweden, Hungary and Malta. However, the recorded value in 2021 is higher than the average value in 14 Member States (dark blue candlesticks), in particular in Slovenia and Cyprus. Lastly, the latest recorded values tend to indicate a more homogeneous pattern among the Member States, even if the latest values for Germany, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Slovenia and Austria remain more than twice that observed for the EU.
Citizenship of first-time asylum applicant children
Table 3 presents the geographical breakdown by the 20 main citizenships of first-time asylum applicants aged less than 18 for the period 2011 to 2021 and for the year 2021. Over the whole period, including 2021, the three main citizenships of first-time asylum applicant children were Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi. The weight of these three citizenships was equal to 53.7 % of the total in 2021 whereas it amounted to 50.0 % of the total over the 2011-2021 period. Following this unchanged top 3, Somalia (3.4 %) and Eritrea (3.0 %) completed the top 5 in 2021, followed by Turkey (2.3 %), Nigeria (2.3 %), Côte d'Ivoire (1.9 %) and Albania (1.8 %). The weight of first-time asylum applicant children who are citizens of those 6 countries (14.7 %) is lower in comparison with those recorded from 2011 to 2021 on average (12.6 %).
When looking at the changes in the composition of the top 20 citizenships in 2021, in comparison with the period from 2011 to 2021, it can be seen that the number of African citizenships has increased from 4 to 6 (Somalia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Guinea plus Côte d'Ivoire and Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2021). The number of South American citizenships also increased from 1 to 2 (Venezuela, plus Colombia in 2021), whereas the number of Asian citizenships increased from 6 to 7 (Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia, Iran, Pakistan plus Bangladesh in 2021) and the number of European (non-EU) citizenships decreased from 7 to 4 (Turkey, Albania, Russia plus Moldova in 2021 less Kosovo, Serbia, North Macedonia and Ukraine). Finally, stateless children, with only 680 first-time asylum applicants recorded in 2021, no longer belong to the top 20 in 2021.
Figure 6 shows the development by main geographical area and it tends to confirm this pattern. Up until 2014, Asia and Europe followed a comparable trajectory. The “migration crisis” illustrated by the peak observed for Asia in 2015 and 2016 interrupted this similarity, even if the maximum number of first-time asylum applicant children having a European citizenship (non-EU) was recorded in 2015. After those peaks, Asian and European curves are characterised by a downward trend, which led to a lower level for Europe in 2021 than in 2011, whereas, for Asia, the number of first-time asylum applicants aged less than 18, after an increase in 2021, was still higher in 2021 than in 2014. Concerning Africa, a regular upward trend can be seen until 2017 before fluctuating during the past three years. Starting in 2017, more first-time asylum applicant children were citizens of an African country than a European one. Lastly, the number of first-time asylum applicant children who are citizens of a South or Central American country significantly increased from 2016 to 2019, becoming even higher in 2020 than the number recorded for European (non-EU) children citizens, but the drop observed in 2021 (-48.5 %) changed this pattern.
First-time asylum applicant children by sex
Figure 7 shows the development of the share of males in the total number of first-time applicants aged less than 18. Over the whole period, the share of males for first-time applicant children is significantly higher than 50 %, with a minimum of 54.1 % observed in 2019 and a maximum of 64.2 % in 2015, whereas the average value over the period from 2011 to 2021 was equal to 58.4 %. It can also be noted that the highest shares of males were recorded during the migration crisis in 2015 and 2016.
Weight of first-time asylum applicants aged less than 18 in the total number of first-time applicants
As can be seen in Figure 8, the share of children in the total number of first-time asylum applicants is not stable over time, ranging between 25 % and 32 %. One of the main features is that the share of children increased during the “migration crisis” and has remained over 30 % thereafter. Table 4 provides the detail by Member State of the share of children in the total number of first-time asylum applicants, and confirms this finding. High average figures can be observed in Austria (39.8 %), Germany (39.0 %), and Sweden (37.0 %), which were among the most impacted Member States during the “migration crisis” either in absolute or in relative terms. However, the highest average rate over the whole period was recorded in Poland (43.4 %).
At EU-level, the share of unaccompanied minors in the total number of first-time asylum applicants aged less than 18 was on average 15.3 % over the period from 2011 to 2021, with a maximum value of 25.5 % recorded in 2015 and a minimum value of 7.3 % in 2019. Once again, the highest value was recorded during the “migration crisis”, but the weight of unaccompanied minors dropped quickly just after before increasing by 6.6 percentage points up to 13.9% during the last two years. When looking at the average share of unaccompanied minors in the Member States, the highest values can be found in Slovenia (60.8 %), Italy (47.5 %), Bulgaria (44.1 %) and Romania (42.5 %), whereas this share was below 3 % on average in Spain (0.5 %), Lithuania (1.2 %) and Estonia (1.5 %).
The analysis of the breakdown by country of citizenship (Table 6) also shows some characteristics related to unaccompanied minors, in particular when comparing it with the same breakdown for the total number of first-time asylum applicants (see Table 3). Afghans (39.1 %) are by far the most represented citizenship in the total number of unaccompanied minors over the period 2011 to 2021, whereas the share for first-time asylum applicants aged less than 18 is only 15.7 % over the same period. On the contrary, for Syrians the share is only 14.5 % for unaccompanied minors, whereas it is 26.0 % for first-time asylum applicants aged less than 18. This shows a higher share of applications by accompanied minors i.e. those Syrian children applying for asylum accompanied by their parent(s). Among the top 20 citizenships over the period from 2011 to 2021 presented in Table 6, the presence of a majority of African countries (12) accounting for a total of 25.8 % of unaccompanied minors is noticed, but only 11 African countries are part of the top 20 in 2021 representing only a total weight of 13.0%. Lastly, there are no European (non-EU) countries in the top 20 list over the period from 2011 to 2021, and stateless unaccompanied minors, with only 60 asylum applicants recorded in 2021, no longer appear in the top 20 in 2021.
Decisions on asylum application for children
As Figure 10 shows, the ratio between the total number of positive decisions and the total number of decisions either in first instance or on appeal was higher over the period 2011 to 2021 for first-time asylum applicant children than for adult first-time asylum applicants. This difference is more significant for first instance decisions than for decisions taken in appeal. It means that the first instance acceptance rate for children is 1.3 times higher than for adults, while for the final decisions on appeal, the acceptance rate for children is 1.2 times higher than for adults.
Lastly, Figure 11 suggests that the asylum procedure is faster for children than for adults, since the share of children in the total number of pending applications is always lower than the share of children in the total number of first-time asylum applicants. The difference between the two shares is not constant, and it reached a minimum in 2015 at the beginning of the migration crisis, reflecting the pressure at that time on the asylum systems in the EU.
Source data for tables and graphs
Since 2008 data have been provided to Eurostat under the provisions of Article 4 of the Regulation (EC) No 862/2007; most of the statistics presented in this article were collected within this regulatory framework. Data are provided to Eurostat with a monthly frequency (for asylum application statistics), quarterly frequency (for first instance decisions) or annual frequency (for final decisions based on appeal or review, resettlement and unaccompanied minors). The statistics are based on administrative sources and are supplied to Eurostat by statistical authorities, home office ministries/ministries of the interior or related immigration agencies in the EU Member States.
1) The EU total is calculated as the aggregation of the available Member States data.
- 2011: missing data for Croatia, Hungary, Austria and Finland.
- 2012: missing data for Croatia, Hungary and Austria.
- 2013: missing data for Austria.
- 2020 data have been used for calculating EU aggregate when French (final decisions), Lithuanian (first and final decisions and unaccompanied minors), and Portuguese (unaccompanied minors) data were not available.
2) Member State data refer to the number of persons applying for asylum for the first time in that Member State. Persons may however apply for international protection in more than one Member State in a given reference year. Consequently, the EU total may include such multiple applications.
In recent years, the number of children in migration arriving in the European Union, many of whom are unaccompanied, has increased in a dramatic way, particularly in 2015 and 2016.
Protecting children is first and foremost about upholding European values of respect for human rights, dignity and solidarity. This is why protecting all children in migration, regardless of status and at all stages of migration, is a priority. The European Union, together with its Member States and with the support of the relevant EU agencies (European Border and Coast Guard Agency; European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA)), has been active on this front for many years. The existing EU policies and legislation provide a solid framework for the protection of the rights of the child in migration covering all aspects including reception conditions, the treatment of their applications and integration.
The protection of children in migration starts by addressing the root causes which lead so many of them to embark on perilous journeys to Europe. This means addressing the persistence of violent and often protracted conflicts, forced displacements, inequalities in living standards, limited economic opportunities and access to basic services through sustained efforts to eradicate poverty and deprivation and to develop integrated child protection systems in third countries. The European Union and its Member States have stepped up their efforts to establish a comprehensive external policy framework to reinforce cooperation with partner countries in mainstreaming child protection at the global, regional and bilateral level. The European Union is fully committed to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which calls for a world in which every child grows up free from violence and exploitation, has his/her rights protected and access to quality education and healthcare. The 2015 Valletta Summit  political declaration and its Action Plan calls for the prevention of and fight against irregular migration, migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings (with a specific focus on women and children).
The EU Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of the Child renew the EU's commitment to promote and protect the indivisibility of the rights of the child in its relations with third countries, including countries of origin or transit. In this context, the Council reaffirmed the need to protect all refugee and migrant children, regardless of their status, and give primary consideration at all times to the best interests of the child, including unaccompanied children and those separated from their families, in full compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols.
Within the European Commission, the Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs is responsible for immigration policy, whereas the Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers is in charge of child policy. All relevant legal acts and information regarding the EU’s immigration policy can be accessed on the European Commission’s website. Readers interested in the recent development of the global immigration policy in the European Union can also refer to the new pact on migration and asylum which has been presented by the European Commission in September 2020.
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- ↑ The terms ‘children in migration’, or ‘children’, in this document cover all third country national children (persons below 18 years old) who are forcibly displaced or migrate to and within the EU territory, be it with their (extended) family, with a non-family member (separated children) or alone, whether or not seeking asylum.
- ↑ https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/21839/action_plan_en.pdf