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Asylum rates sharply up in the Baltic States, but down in the Nordic countries in 2011

29 March 2012

© UNHCR / D. Telemans / 25 August 2011
Children playing in a play field. In Sweden it is the Swedish Migration Board that manages the reception centres for asylum-seekers.

The number of newly registered asylum-seekers decreased in the four large Nordic countries in 2011 compared to 2010. In both Denmark and Finland the drop in the number of asylum claims was 23 per cent from 2010 to 2011. Norway and Sweden experiences somewhat lower drops, with 10 and 7 per cent respectively. Iceland, on the other hand, recorded an increase of some 41 per cent. The Baltic countries also saw a significant increase in asylum claims. In Latvia the number of claims more than quintupled in 2011, from 61 claims in 2010 to 335 claims.

A total of some 46,000 persons sought asylum in the Nordic and Baltic countries last year, compared to over 50,000 in 2010 and 2009. Sweden continued to be the largest single recipient of new asylum claims, with 29,648 claims, accounting for over 60 per cent of all asylum claims in the region. The Nordic countries saw the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors declining, except for Sweden. The largest groups of asylum-seekers mirrored the conflict zones in the world; with Somalia and Afghanistan being the top countries of origin.

Box: Who is an asylum-seeker? An asylum-seeker is an individual who has sought international protection and whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined.

Asylum rates down in the Nordic countries

Among the Nordic countries, Denmark accounted for the biggest decrease in number of asylum-seekers in 2011. The number of persons seeking asylum in Denmark dropped with 23 per cent in 2011 (3,811 claims) compared to 2010. Afghanistan continued to be the most important source country of asylum-seekers (903 claims) in 2011. However, the number of claims decreased by close to 39 per cent compared to 2010. Afghanistan was followed by Iran (461 claims) and Syria (428 claims). Asylum-seekers from Syria accounted for the biggest decrease; the number of applications lodged by Syrians decreased with 48 per cent compared to the previous year. Whereas the number of Libyans seeking asylum in Denmark more than quintupled in 2011 (67 claims) compared to 12 in 2010.

In 2011 the number of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Denmark dropped significantly. Some 284 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum compared to 432 in 2010 and 542 in 2009. Afghanistan remained the largest country of origin, accounting for almost 60 per cent of the unaccompanied minor asylum-seekers, followed by Algeria (35 claims) and Libya (13 claims).

In Finland the number of asylum-seekers also dropped for the second consecutive year (-23%). In 2011 some 3,086 persons applied for asylum in Finland compared to 4,018 in 2010 and 5,988 in 2009. The top three countries of origin were Iraq (588 claims), Somalia (365 claims) and Russia (294 claims). It is mainly asylum-seekers from Bulgaria (-90%) and Somalia (-36%) who accounted for this drop. The number of asylum-seekers from Syria (110 claims) and Libya (25 claims) more than doubled in 2011 compared to 2010.

The number of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Finland more than halved compared to 2010. In 2011 some 153 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum compared to 329 persons in 2010. The top three countries of origin remained Somalia (47 claims), Iraq (28 claims) and Afghanistan (25 claims).

A number of amendments to the Aliens Act came into force in August 2010 in Finland. The changes concern for example age testing, asylum-seekers’ right to work, and family reunification. Stricter family reunification criteria were also introduced for minors, e.g. the child shall still be a minor at the moment when the decision on the application for residence permit is made. Moreover, as of July 2010, EU nationals are eligible to stay at the reception centres for asylum-seekers only until they receive a negative decision on their asylum application. The change was introduced when numerous groups of EU nationals (mainly Bulgarians and Romanians of Roma ethnicity) started to apply for asylum in Finland. These applications are regarded as manifestly unfounded since they are made by residents of another EU member state.

Even though the number of asylum-seekers continued to decrease in Norway (-10%), the country was the second largest recipient of asylum-seekers among the Nordic countries with 9,053 claims in 2011. The number of Somalis seeking international protection in Norway almost doubled (2,216 claims) compared to 2010 (1,397 claims). Somalia thus became the main country of origin of asylum-seekers in Norway. Eritrea dropped to second place with 1,256 claims, compared to 1,711 in 2010. The number of Afghans seeking asylum remained the same as in 2010 (979 claims), thus Afghanistan was the third most important source country of asylum-seekers.  

In 2011 the number of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Norway continued to decrease, from 892 claims in 2010 to 858 claims in 2011. Similar to previous years Afghanistan (426 claims), Somalia (162 claims) and Eritrea (46 claims) were the most important source countries of asylum-seekers. While the number of unaccompanied asylum-seekers from Afghanistan (+13%) and Somalia (+36%) increased, the number of claims lodged by Eritreans almost halved (-48%) compared to 2010.

Contrary to the other Nordic countries, the number of asylum-seekers seeking protection in Iceland continued to rise (+41%) compared to 2010. However, the number of newly registered asylum-seekers remained low; 72 applicants in 2011 compared to 51 in 2010. The top three countries of origin were: the Russian Federation (7 claims), Nigeria (6 claims) and on a joint third place Algeria and Iraq with 5 applicants.

Sweden was the third largest recipient of asylum applications (29,648 claims) in the EU and remained the most important destination for asylum-seekers of all the Nordic countries. Sweden experienced a 7 per cent decrease in asylum claims compared to 2010 (31,800 claims). Afghanistan was the top country of origin of asylum-seekers in Sweden with 4,122 claims. This is an increase of 72 per cent compared to the figures from 2010 (2,400 claims).

The drop in the number of asylum-seekers in Sweden is mainly due to a decrease in claims from persons originating from Serbia (and Kosovo: S/RES/1244 (1999)) and Somalia. The number of asylum-seekers from Serbia (2,699 claims) more than halved in 2011 compared to 2010 (3,000 fewer claims). The high number of Serbians seeking asylum in Sweden in 2010 is mainly due to the European Union’s introduction of visa-free entry for holders of Serbian passports in December 2009. Asylum claims from people originating from Bosnia and Herzegovina went up from 120 in 2010 to almost 1,000 in 2011. Many of the applicants from the Balkans are Roma. They cite ethnic discrimination as a reason for seeking asylum. However, the vast majority are not granted asylum in Sweden.

With 3,981 asylum claims lodged in 2011, Somalia was the second most important country of asylum-seekers. Last year, 1,600 fewer claims were registered (-28%) compared to 2010. Sweden continued to see a decrease in Iraqi claims in 2011 (-17%) compared to 2010. The figures have fallen to 1,633 claims from as high as 18,600 in 2006. Sweden continued with forced return of Iraqi rejected asylum-seekers in 2011.

Some 2,657 unaccompanied minors sought asylum in Sweden in 2011. This is a slight increase compared to 2010, when 2,393 claims were lodged. Afghans accounted for over half of all the claims lodged by unaccompanied minors, the claims increased from 1,153 in 2010 to 1,693 in 2011. Afghanistan was followed by Somalia and Serbia as the top countries of origin, which both showed a decrease in number of claims. The number of unaccompanied Somalis seeking asylum more than halved, from 533 in 2010 to 251 in 2011.

Asylum rates sharply up in the Baltic States

In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania combined, the number of asylum-seekers increased with 78 per cent, from 464 claims in 2010 to 808 claims in 2011. Despite the record high numbers, the number of asylum-seekers remained very low compared to the four largest Nordic countries. The top three countries of origin were Georgia, the Russian Federation and Afghanistan. The State Border Guards in Latvia signed an agreement with UNHCR to support more protection-sensitive borders in 2011. A similar agreement was concluded with Lithuania in 2010. The aim is to support access for asylum-seekers to the countries asylum procedures.

The number of asylum-seekers seeking international protection in Estonia more than doubled in 2011 (67 claims) compared to 2010 (30 claims). The Democratic Republic of Congo was the main country of origin of asylum-seekers in Estonia (11), followed by Afghanistan (8) and Armenia (7). Estonia also received one application from an asylum-seeking minor from Somalia.

In Latvia the number of claims more than quintupled in 2011, from 61 claims in 2010 to 335 claims. Latvia thus accounted for the biggest increase in number of asylum-seekers among the Baltic countries. It is mainly asylum-seekers from Georgia who accounted for this increase, up from 1 in 2010 to 176 in 2011. Georgia thus became the main country of origin of asylum-seekers in Latvia, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo (39) and the Russian Federation (18).

The number of asylum applications in Lithuania continued to increase (+9%) compared to 2010. Georgia remained the main country of origin of asylum-seekers (202 claims), despite a decrease in the number of asylum-seekers from 2010 (-14%). The second highest-ranking source country of asylum-seekers was the Russian Federation (+176%), followed by Afghanistan (+73%).

Table 1: Asylum-seekers in the Baltic and Nordic countries 2011 and 2010*

Number of asylum-seekers



























* The numbers are rounded off.

More asylum-seekers recognized as refugees in the Nordic countries, but not in the Baltic States

As part of internationally recognized obligations to protect refugees on their territories, countries of asylum are responsible for determining whether an asylum-seeker is a refugee or not. This responsibility is often incorporated into national legislation and is derived from the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and other international human rights instruments.

In all the Nordic countries the proportion of asylum claims accepted increased in 2011 compared to 2010. Both the number of persons granted Convention refugee status and the total number of asylum-seekers granted protection increased (see table 2 for more details). However, in the Baltic States the recognition rates dropped compared to 2010.

Table 2: Recognition rates 2011 and 2010

Recognition rates

Refugee Recognition Rate

Total Protection Rate














































* Not yet available.

Box: Recognition rates Refugee Recognition Rate is the percentage of asylum-seekers granted Convention refugee status.Total Protection Rate includes both those asylum-seekers granted Convention refugee status and those granted other forms of protection. 

Resettlement in the Nordics

Each year hundreds of refugees from particularly exposed camps and urban settings around the world are granted resettlement in the Nordic countries. When local integration or voluntary repatriation is not possible, resettlement can be the only durable solution available. Resettlement is the selection and transfer of refugees from the first country of asylum, to another state that agrees to receive them. States decide the size and composition of their resettlement quota in dialogue with UNHCR. Resettled refugees are also called quota refugees. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden are considered traditional resettlement countries, because of their longstanding resettlement programmes.

Table 3: Number of resettlement arrivals 2011 and 2010


Annual quota

Number of arrivals 2011

Number of arrivals 2010





















* Statistics for Denmark 2011 not yet available.

** Iceland has an annual resettlement quota of 25-30 persons. However, the resettlement policy is now being revised.

*** Norway's annual quota is part of a flexible, three-year quota period. Therefore the number of resettled refugees varies from year to year. 

The processing time of resettlement cases can be lengthy. The number of arrivals does not always match the acceptances in a given year. This is primarily because it may take some time to for example organise transportation and find a municipality willing to receive the refugees.

Today 25 countries offer resettlement places, amounting to a total of some 80,000 resettlement places annually. However, UNHCR has identified approximately 800,000 refugees to be in need of resettlement.

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