Statistical analysis, 2017

Asylum seekers: how many become refugees, and how does this affect the immigrant situation?

From asylum seeker to refugee – before and after the crisis of 2015


This article was first published in Norwegian, in Statistics Norway’s journal Samfunnsspeilet: Østby, Lars (2016): Asylsøkere: Hvor mange får bli flyktninger, og hvordan påvirkes innvandrerbildet? Fra asylsøker til flyktning – før og etter kriseåret 2015. Samfunnsspeilet 4/2016. Statistisk sentralbyrå.

One million refugees/asylum seekers came to Europe in 2015, thousands drowned in the Mediterranean, and over 30 000 found their way to Norway. Public discourse has been concerned with society's ability to accept and integrate such large numbers of displaced persons. In order to get an idea of the impact of the situation, this article will examine refugees who have lived in Norway for several years and have a similar background to the most recent refugees: Bosnians who fled the Balkan wars in the 1990s, and Iraqis who have been arriving in smaller groups since the 1990s.

When putting the crisis year of 2015 into a historical context with all immigration to Norway as a backdrop, it is natural to focus on the last decade, i.e. the period 2006–2015, whilst also taking a retrospective look at 1990. 2006 saw the establishment of a new, extensive labour migration, particularly from the new EU member states. In the past decade, refugees have accounted for 10–20 per cent of all immigrants, including families that came later. It is only when an asylum seeker’s application is accepted and he/she is classified as a refugee in Norway that he/she is included in the population statistics. In Statistics Norway’s figures, refugees are often included in the large group of immigrants.

In this edition of Samfunnsspeilet, we aim to ascertain whether there are lessons to be learned from the integration of earlier refugee groups affected by war. How have they settled in their new country? Are they active in the labour market, do they have, or are they getting an education, do they participate in politics by voting in elections? What is the estimated cost to society associated with the new arrivals?

What happens upon arrival?

Everyone who comes to Norway and applies for asylum here is registered as an asylum seeker with the UDI. Many applications are sent to other countries pursuant to the Dublin Convention, or to safe non-EU countries. A greater or lesser number of the applications that are subject to substantive assessment in Norway will be rejected. Those who are allowed to stay in Norway are given a personal identification number, and are added to the Central Population Register. Only then can an asylum seeker be classed as a refugee in Norway and included in the population statistics.

This has been the case since 1994. From 1987 to 1994, all asylum seekers were given a personal identification number on arrival. Generally, asylum application decisions have taken several months, but the large influx of asylum seekers at the end of 2015 meant that very few had received a positive response by the end of the year, which was necessary in order to be registered as immigrated in 2015. Many will have to wait until 2017 or 2018 for a decision. For a further description of the asylum process, see the UDI’s overview in this edition of Samfunnsspeilet.



Immigrants: persons born abroad with two foreign-born parents and four foreign-born grandparents.

Norwegian-born to immigrant parents: born in Norway to two foreign-born parents, and with four foreign-born grandparents.

As a whole, these two groups are often referred to as persons with an immigrant background.

Refugees and family immigrants of refugees

Refugee: a person who has been granted a residence permit subsequent to an application for protection (asylum). Refers to those granted residence on humanitarian grounds, protection, collective protection, or as a resettlement.

Residence on humanitarian grounds is granted to persons who need protection or are in a vulnerable position.

Resettlement refugee: a person who is not in their native country, and is transferred to a third country in line with an official decision, normally in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Collective protection covers refugees and their families who are fleeing war (in Norway this term has mainly applied to refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina).

Primary refugee: a person who has been granted asylum or residence on humanitarian grounds, as a resettlement refugee or as a person who belongs to a group with collective protection.

Family immigrant: a person who is granted a residence permit because they have a family member (reference person) in the host country. Covers family reunification, expansion/establishment, accompaniment (where someone accompanies another family immigrant), family ties and unspecified grounds relating to family.

Persons with a refugee background: refugees and family immigrants of such persons (combined total of primary refugees and family immigrants).

Not included: asylum seekers who are awaiting a decision on protection (asylum) and residence in the country are not counted as persons with a refugee background.

Source: Statistics Norway

Looking back at 2015: three-fold increase in asylum seekers

During the peak period, more than 8 000 asylum seekers arrived in Norway every month in 2015. The largest number previously was 17 480 in 2002 – and that was for the whole year. Last year the total count was 31 145 asylum seekers, nearly double the previous peak, and three times as many as the years preceding 2015. All data on asylum seekers have been taken from the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) 2016.

The fact that 70 per cent of asylum seekers arrived from September to November and created major problems for the refugee reception system, and that more than 5 000 arrived via the new refugee route over Storskog in Sør-Varanger, made the influx of asylum seekers the dominant political issue in autumn 2015. There was a great deal of uneasiness about how the situation would develop, and according to Frode Forfang, Director General of the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI), Norway had to plan for up to 100 000 asylum seekers in 2016 (Larsen 2015). If current levels were to continue, we had to be prepared for 120 000 asylum seekers.

Restrictive measures following political agreement

The sharp increase in the number of asylum seekers in autumn 2015 gave rise to a great deal of unrest and uncertainty, and became the basis for a series of political agreements in Norway. In a European context, restrictive measures implemented by one country were often followed by similar measures in other countries. The justification for the measures was the necessity for quick and effective integration. The justification for the measures was the necessity for quick and effective integration. The political handling of this in Norway is summed up in a report by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security (Justis- og beredskapsdepartementet 2016) and in a report to the Storting (Meld. St. 30 (2015-2016), 2016).

In line with the decline in the number of asylum seekers from December 2015, the estimates of expected numbers were revised down by 50–60 000 in January to 10 750 in June, and further to 3 550 in October. As per 1 November 2016, 2 804 asylum seekers had come to Norway.

Fewer to both Norway and the EU in 2016

Perhaps the increase in the influx last year was only a temporary wave? From the fourth quarter of 2015 to the first quarter of 2016, the number of asylum seekers to Norway fell by 95 per cent, while the EU figure saw a reduction of 33 per cent (Eurostat 2016a). It is unclear how much of the decline was caused by our own restrictive measures and how much can be due to other factors; such as strict border controls throughout Europe or the agreement between the EU and Turkey, which in practice has put a stop to the boatloads of refugees arriving in Greece from Turkey.

The asylum crisis around and in the Mediterranean is by no means over, even though Norway is currently receiving fewer asylum seekers than the last 20 years. In 2015, we were one of the countries in the EEA area that took in the most asylum seekers per capita, and in October only six EEA countries received more asylum seekers than Norway. In the first quarter of 2016, we received 171 asylum seekers per million inhabitants, compared with 565 for the EU as a whole.

Of the 10 000 asylum seekers who arrived from Syria in 2015, perhaps 6 000–7 500 will actually be allowed to stay in the country (own estimate based on the UDI’s practice so far), but by no means everyone will have received a decision by the end of 2016. Some applications will be dealt with in other countries, according to the Dublin Convention (see box), some will be sent to safe third countries, some applications will be rejected, and some will be withdrawn. There were also relatively large numbers of asylum seekers from Syria in the years immediately preceding this: a few hundred annually in the years 2008–2012, 850 in 2013 and 2000 in 2014 (see Figure 1).

Dublin Convention

The Dublin Convention, which Norway joined in 2001, is a cooperation between the EU member states, Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Norway. It determines which country is responsible for processing an application for protection. An asylum seeker can only have their application processed in one of the member countries, and the main rule is that the application is processed by the first member country that the applicant reaches. If the asylum seeker applies for protection in a different country, he/she will be sent back to the country that has already processed the application, or that is responsible for processing it.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Asylum applications by citizenship and year

There are also large numbers of resettlement refugees from Syria (see the box on resettlement refugees). The resettlement refugees do not apply for asylum in Norway, but are selected in consultation with the United Nations. For the period 2015–2017, a quota of 8 000 has been set. This quota combined with all asylum seekers who are in reception centres awaiting a decision gives an indication of the expected large numbers of refugees from Syria in the years ahead. It is unclear whether there will be many new asylum seekers. (All information about resettlement refugees is taken from UDI 2016.)

How many resettlement refugees?

Resettlement refugees or quota refugees are normally registered as refugees outside their homeland. Most live in refugee camps, but this is only a temporary solution. The quota is determined by the government, and in 2016 stood at 3 120, of which 3 000 places were reserved for Syrians. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) forwards the applications for resettlement refugees. The UDI decides who to accept in Norway, based on interviews with the refugees.

A total of 3 336 refugees from Syria were registered in 2015 as being granted protection. Half of these were resettlement refugees, and the other half were asylum seekers from 2015 and earlier. The number of settled refugees and family reunification cases for refugees from Syria rose by 4 200 from 2015 to 2016 (Statistics Norway 2016).

Asylum seekers’ backgrounds – new countries in the mix

The breakdown of asylum seekers by country background has changed considerably over the last decade (see Figure 1). In 2015, half of the asylum seekers were from Syria or Afghanistan, compared to five per cent ten years earlier. Afghanistan had large numbers of asylum seekers even before 2015, peaking in 2009. Eritreans made up the largest or second largest group in the period 2008–2014. The numbers from Iraq increased substantially in 2015 from 2014, but the peak was in 2008. 2015 also saw large numbers of Iranians, after a long period with few applicants from this country.

Since the late 1980s, many Somalis have come to Norway as asylum seekers, and are now the largest group of refugees. In 2015, however, the number of newly-arrived Somalis was the lowest since 1997, with the exception of 2007. Neither was there any increase in asylum seekers from Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan in 2015, despite the overall increase of Africans seeking asylum in Europe. The large influx from Russia came to an end around 2010.

Asylum seekers in the EU and Norway – many from the same countries

The country backgrounds of asylum seekers in Norway differ slightly from the pattern elsewhere in Europe. The three largest countries in 2015 were the same for the EU and Norway: Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Kosovo and Albania are next on the EU list, but not in Norway. It is too soon to know how many asylum seekers in the EU will actually become refugees, but those from Albania and Kosovo are highly unlikely to be allowed to remain in the EU (Eurostat 2016a).

Pakistan has the sixth most asylum seekers in the EU, and since there are so many immigrants from Pakistan in Norway, we could perhaps also expect a certain number of asylum seekers. Over the past ten years, Norway has only received 1 200 asylum applications from Pakistani nationals, 25 per cent of which were in November 2015.

The pattern in Norway, where Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea are the largest ‘sending countries’, is also found in the other Nordic countries, and in many of the smaller countries in Western and Central Europe. Germany also received many asylum seekers from Albania and Kosovo, France had large numbers from Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Italy had most from Africa and Pakistan, while the United Kingdom had most from Eritrea. Large groups of asylum seekers did not make it any further than Southern Europe in autumn 2015, and had to seek asylum in the country that they arrived in first; for example, almost 175 000 asylum seekers ‘suddenly’ arrived in Hungary in 2015, 110 000 of whom were from Syria and Afghanistan (Eurostat 2016b).

Maybe half will remain in Norway?

We do not know how many of the asylum seekers’ applications will be successful, but calculations based on past practice, and where the impact of any restrictive measures has not been factored in, give an estimate of 15 500. This figure is high in the refugee context, and would represent the most refugees we have ever received in a single year. Since labour migration in particular is in decline, it is still possible that there will be no major increase in net migration over the next couple of years.

The UDI’s practice for granting asylum applications in 2015 and in 2016 (UDI 2016) suggests that there are rather few applications from Syrians and Eritreans that will be rejected, but there have been far more rejections of applications from Iraqis and Afghans. The UDI’s overview of applications that were settled in 2015 (UDI 2016) shows that half were granted protection, while 30 per cent of the cases were withdrawn or referred to other countries, either under the Dublin Convention (see box) or because they had stayed in a safe third country. The country with the smallest disparity between the number of asylum applications and the number of immigrant refugees in the period 2006–2015 is Eritrea.

Of the four largest groups of asylum seekers in 2015, those from Eritrea were most likely to be allowed to remain in Norway, which represents 90 per cent of all applications processed in 2015. Among Syrians, 70 per cent were allowed to stay, while 30 per cent of the applications were referred to other countries or withdrawn. Forty-four per cent of the Afghan applicants were granted asylum here, but only 8 per cent of the Iraqis. From countries like Kosovo, Albania, Ukraine, Morocco, Egypt and Bangladesh, virtually none of the asylum seekers were granted permission to stay, and few of the applications from Lebanese, Nigerians and Pakistanis were successful. Appeals to the Immigration Appeals Board (UNE) are likely to push up the number of successful applications.

Majority of Eritreans allowed to stay in 2006–2015

The number of refugees who arrived in the period 2006–2015 make up about 40 per cent of the asylum seekers during the period. This figure will increase by a few percentage points when unprocessed applications are decided. For the period 2006–2015, Eritrea has the smallest disparity in the number of asylum applications and the number of immigrant refugees (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 2 does not include resettlement refugees. Ordinary refugees from Eritrea in the period 2006–2015 make up 70 per cent of all asylum applications. The figures suggest that Eritreans are just as likely to be allowed to stay as they were before. Two-thirds of Somalis who have applied for asylum have been successful, but it is increasingly unlikely that they will be allowed to stay. Of the applications decided in 2015, 35 per cent were successful. For countries with large numbers of asylum seekers in 2015, the share of successful applications will gradually increase. This particularly applies to Syria, and to some extent Iraq and Afghanistan.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Newly arrived refugees by citizenship and year, excluding resettlement refugees

Refugees’ place among other immigrants

Between 1990 and 2015, the annual number of refugees was under 10 000 almost consistently (Figure 3). The number of immigrants as a whole, i.e. refugees and other first-time immigrants, has increased considerably, particularly since 2006. The refugees’ share of the total number of non-Nordic immigrants was over 40 per cent in the years 1991–1994 and in 1999. Non-Nordic citizens are the most relevant group to examine, since these are the only ones whose immigration needs to be approved by the UDI. The share in the years 2006–2014 was between 9 and 14 per cent, rising to 19 per cent in 2015.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Immigrants, by reason for immigration and year of immigration

The number of family immigrants of refugees and of other immigrants as a whole has also increased steadily throughout the period, and was the largest group in most years up to 2005 (Figure 3). Of this group, family reunification and family establishment (marriage) with refugees constituted around a fifth. In 2006, labour immigrants became the largest group, and remained so in 2015.

From 2006 to the end of 2015, almost 700 000 immigrants were registered in Norway (Statistics Norway 2016). Of these, almost 500 000 were first-time non-Nordic immigrants. Refugees accounted for 61 902 of these. The largest groups from the years 2006–2015 were family immigrants (213 000) from all parts of the world, and labour immigrants (192,000), mostly from Europe, but also from Asia.

When the family follows

When we look at the significance of the refugees in the overall immigration profile, it is natural to also include family immigrants of refugees. Figure 4 shows the share of refugees and family immigrants to such persons as a percentage of the total non-Nordic immigration.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Refugees and their affiliated family members as a percentage of the total non-Nordic immigration

In the 1990s, this share was much higher than it was after 2000, and in 1993 and 1999−2000 constituted more than half of the total immigration of non-Nordic citizens. Between 2006 and 2014, one in five first-time non-Nordic immigrants and their family members had been refugees, and this share has had limited impact on immigration as a whole. In 2015, this applied to one in four immigrants, but prior to 2006 the shares were higher. The low share of refugees and family immigrants of such persons among immigrants after 2005 is due to an increase in other immigration; the annual number of refugees has not declined.

Integration – a complicated and unclear concept

‘To integrate’ is a verb derived from Latin meaning ‘to make whole’. If a minority group and a majority group are to ‘become one’, many researchers argue that both groups must adapt to each other, in their own way (HL-senteret 2014, see also Brochmann 2014). Much of the uneasiness concerning the large number of asylum seekers in 2015 related to uncertainty about how they could be integrated.

A defined goal is to integrate those who are allowed to stay in Norway as quickly and effectively as possible. The challenge is that neither the politicians, authorities or the public discourse have a universal definition of integration. There is not much interest in the majority population adapting to the minority.

The term ‘integration’ is also used widely outside the world of politics. It is seldom given a clear definition, either in statistics or analyses. Statistics Norway has not given any general definition, and nor have the statistical agencies in neighbouring countries or in Canada. Various indicators are used to describe immigrants’ participation in education, employment, etc. in order to enable comparisons of socioeconomic conditions between immigrants and the majority.

Neither the EU or the OECD have a clear definition of the concept. The statistical office of the European Union, Eurostat, presented results in 2011 of a comprehensive programme for comparative integration indicators, without making any attempt to give an overall definition. The OECD has a similar project (OECD 2015) with the same fragmentary approach. The same can also be said about the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

Grete Brochmann, Professor in Sociology at the University of Oslo, explains it as follows: ‘Integration is a multi-dimensional concept, with economic, social, cultural, political and emotional aspects. In the Norwegian context, it has largely been agreed that functional integration is a benefit. It is important that immigrants take up employment and maximise their capabilities, and that they are incorporated into the working community and are not subject to discrimination’ (from a presentation related to the report Long-term Perspectives on the Norwegian Economy, 7 June 2016).

In the articles in this issue of Samfunnsspeilet that discuss the integration of refugees, the authors have no universal definition to use, but choose the same approach as the statistical agencies mentioned above, and that which Statistics Norway has followed previously. The articles present the available data, including the education level and labour force participation of refugees and their Norwegian-born children. We draw comparisons with other immigrant groups, and with groups without an immigrant background. Participation in society is illustrated using figures on election turnout.

We make no attempt to synthesise the various integration indicators into one common measure. The description is therefore fragmentary, and dependent on a good choice of indicators. Statistics Norway has no justification for saying to what extent the refugees share the majority's values, or which values should be measured. Neither is there any basis for assessing the extent to which the majority population changes its behaviour or values in its encounter with refugees (the development in attitudes towards immigration and immigrants is described systematically by Blom 2015).

What can we learn from the Bosnians and Iraqis?

A third of those who arrived in the record year 2015 were from Syria. In the Norwegian context, this is a fairly new group of refugees, but Norway has accepted large numbers of refugees from war-torn areas previously; e.g. Bosnians in the 1990s and Iraqis in the 2000s. Several of the articles in this issue attempt to identify whether there are lessons to be learned from the integration of these comparative groups whose new homeland is Norway. Does their adaptation to Norwegian society give us any indication of the future of refugees who applied for asylum in 2015?

History will not repeat itself, but we can still learn something from it. Two articles are devoted entirely to each of the groups. Iraq was chosen because the Iraqis came from a war-torn country with a border to Syria (mainly from the Kurdish areas), even though they arrived over a longer period. The Bosnians are also war refugees, and arrived within a short period in 1992 and 1993. When comparing the integration of refugees from different periods, we must also remember that the refugee reception system and organisation have changed. This edition of Samfunnsspeilet provides an overview of the regulations for the asylum process and types of reception centres, as well as statistics as of 31 October 2016, compiled by the UDI.


Lars Østby is a geographer and researcher associated with the Division for social welfare statistics, Statistics Norway. (


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