Refugees in the EU

There are approximately 1.5 million recognised refugees living in the 28 Member States of the European Union plus Norway and Switzerland. This compares to a global figure of approximately 16 million1.

The status and legal definition of a refugee is set out in the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that has been signed and ratified by all EU Member States. The provisions of the Geneva Convention are implemented through the national legislation of each country.

Asylum Seekers

All the EU Member States make a distinction between asylum seekers and refugees. An asylum seeker is a person submitting a request for refugee status. The asylum seeker is not granted refugee status unless the Member State decides they qualify, following a defined legal procedure.

Article 18 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights states: “The right to asylum shall be guaranteed with due respect for the rules of the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 and the Protocol of 31 January 1967 relating to the status of refugees and in accordance with the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union”.

Common European Asylum System

EU Member States retain a large degree of sovereignty over the way asylum seekers and refugees are treated. This means that the conditions and benefits asylum seekers and refugees receive in each EU Member State can vary significantly.

The EU Member States have taken the first steps in trying to harmonise the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees living on their territory. The Common European Asylum System is the motor behind this harmonisation and contains a number of legal instruments covering issues such as which Member State is responsible for hearing an asylum claim, the procedures to be used in reviewing the asylum claim and the living conditions pending a decision.

The Common European Asylum System has not however, eliminated differences in the way Member States treat asylum seekers and refugees. The European Parliament and Member States are therefore negotiating revisions to the existing legislation that have been proposed by the European Commission. These negotiations are due to be completed in 2012.

Recap: in the EU...

  • ...asylum seekers are persons submitting a claim for refugee status, pending a legal procedure.
  • ...refugees are persons that receive protection under the Geneva Convention in a Member State.
  • ...Member States take decisions on how asylum seekers and refugees are treated.
  • ...the Common European Asylum System is a first step towards establishing harmonised standards for asylum seekers and refugees in the EU.


12014 Global Trends, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.