How many are coming, and from where?

In the light of the massive focus on refugees among media and politicians, it might come as a surprise to many, that refugees only made up 2% of all foreigners who were granted residence permit in Denmark in 2018.

During the last 4 years, two major changes have occured in Denmark when it comes to the arrival of asylum seekers in Denmark: The number peaked at the end of 2015 with 21,000 new arrivals – but dropped overnight to a very low level where it still is. At the same time, the profile of the applicants has changed, from people with a very obvious need for protection to the current image of a mixed group wirh far weaker motives for asylum.

The amount

Only aroud 50 people apply for asylum every week now, which is a historically low number, and even lower than last year. During the first 7 months of 2019 1,400 asylum seekers were registered, while that number was 2,000 for the same period in 2018.

In 2018, 2,600 asylum seekers have had their case opened in Denmark, and 1,652 were granted asylum. However, one third of them already had a residence permit, usually as family reunified from Syria or Eritrea, which is a new phenomenon – a few years ago, this was only a few percent of the applicants. The municipalities only received 844 new refugees during all of 2018.

The number of new applications has been low and quite stable since spring 2016, dropping a little. Also, Denmark has since 2015 not accepted the 500 resettlement refugees each year from UN that we normally received through 38 years. 

Many camps have been closed down, and there are only 14 camps left now. But still there are 2,800 people accommodated in the asylum camps. In January, 19% of these had pending asylum cases with Immigration Service, 51% with Refugee Appeals Board and 16% were in deportation phase (rejected).

Back in 2015, during the so-called refugee crisis, the number of new arrivals reached 21,000. The sudden drop in Denmark was mainly due to the border control introduced by Sweden in two steps December 2015-January 2016. Denmark has always been a transit country to Sweden. In Sweden, 2,000 continue to arrive per month, which is a low number compared to previous years. Read more about the reasons for the decrease in applications in 2016.

In general, the amount of asylum seekers arriving in Europe has been declining in recent years, as a consequence of the EU-Turkey deal and the increased control of EU's external borders. Sweden and Germany has also received fewer during recent years, but do still receive quite a few more per capita than Denmark.

NEW ASYLUM APPLICATIONS IN DENMARK 2009-2018 (gross and registration numbers)

Media and politicians usually refer to gross numbers, though they include people who will never have their case processed in Denmark, and will only stay a short time in the country. Read more under The Dublin regulation.  In 2016, a very confusing thing happened: the number of cases that should be assessed in Denmark was higher than the gross number – this was due to the fact that a large amount of people arrived at the end of 2016 and had their case opened in the following year. The pattern of 2014 and 2017 was more typical.


NUMBER OF ASYLUM SEEKERS IN DENMARK 2002-2018 (gross numbers)


The rise that Denmark experienced 2014-2016 was actually much higher in other parts of Europe, and it was mainly due to new and less dangerous access routes opening up via the Greek islands and then through Balkan countries. In 2015 more than 1 mio refugees came to Europe, which is twice as much as the year before. Both the outer and the inner border controls were intensified, and the number of new arrivals has decreased all over Europe since then, but the drop was more significant in Sweden and Denmark.

The all time record was October 2015 when 3,694 new applications were filed in one month.

In total, 80,000 people got a residence permit in Denmark in 2016, and only one out of nine was a refugee. The others got permits because of work, studies or family reunification.

Where do they come from?

The profile of the applicants has changed somewhat during recent years, which affects the number of positive decisions, and a quite new phonomenon is that one on five asked for asylum even if they already had another residence permit. This is called 'remote registrations'.

The balance in nationalities applying for asylum in Denmark has changed quite a lot from 2015 to 2019. Since 2013, Syrians have made up the largest part, but over the summer of 2016 Afghans outnumbered them. In 2014, Eritrean was suddenly No 2 on the list, dropping to No 8 in 2016, but recently Eritreans have entered the first place in 2018 – this is, however, mainly due to the spouses who have been granted family reunification and apply for asylum afterwards. In the fall of 2015 we saw a sudden and short rise in the number of Iranians.

In 2019, the top 5 nationalities are: Syria, Eritrea, Morocco, Georgia, Somalia. The group "others" is unusually large, as it covers few persons from many diffrent countries. Afghanistan has been high on then list for many years, but has now dropped out of the list. The pattern at this time is fewer from the "classic" refugee countries, more from a number of other countries – and fewer people from each country. A larger part fall under the procedure Manifestly Unfounded, among them applicants from Georgia and Albania.

41% of the asylum seekers in 2016 were children under 18 years. The percentage of unaccompanied minors was rising since autumn 2015, but has dropped again. In 2019 only 5% of the asylum seekers were unaccompanied minors. The fact that Morocco was suddenly high on the list in 2017 is due to many of the unaccompanied coming from there, but they are all rejected. Single men form a larger part of the applicants now than a few years back, when more families and unaccompanied minors were coming.



Main routes to Denmark

One of the reasons why there are now relatively more migrants arriving from Africa and fewer from the Middle East is the introduction of several border control operations in the Aegean, police actions against smugglers in Turkish coastal regions and the construction of a 800 km long concrete wall in the area between Suruc and Kobane.

Although, on average, between 2,000 and 4,000 boat migrants still sail from Turkey to Greece each month, compared to 2015 and 2015 this still means that relatively more arrivals from especially West Africa and Sub Sahara come via Libya. However, there are also some Syrians, who travel through Libya and cross the sea to Italy. It is a much more dangerous route, and many die in the desert of Sahara and drown in the Mediterranean. It is now one out of nine who drowns in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

Surprisingly, the amount of new arrivals in Spain in 2018 is now higher than the numbers for Italy and Greece. Compared to last year, the numbers look like this: Spain 53,000 = increase 150%. Italy 22,000 = decrease 80%. Greece 27,000 = increase 15%.

The instability and violence in Libya means that the decade-long tradition of African and Asian labor migration to the country has been destabilized, and many no longer dare to stay there for work. At the same time, European actors increasingly collaborate with Libyan authorities and with several decentralized militias on border control and the containment of migrants in camps, before they can travel across the Mediterranean. This has made the situation of migrants in Libya even more dangerous. Several have therefore attempted to travel over lesser known routes, such as Egypt and Tunisia to Italy, but these have also resulted in massive drowning tragedies.

Those who succeed in coming to Europe meet new obstacles. Those trying to travel from Italy, across Austria, and north towards Germany and Scandinavia, are now being stopped at the Brenner Pass, the Alpine border between Italy and Austria. Since August 2017 about 1,000 migrants are stopped and returned every month by Austrian military, while Italian police have also upgraded the control of passenger ships to the north. In the fall of 2017, a few hundred also tried to sail to the Mangalia harbor in Romania via the old and dangerous route over the Black Sea.

Read a personal story of a journey from Eritrea to Denmark: The road to freedom goes through Hell.