Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Europe’s Unauthorized Immigrant Population Peaks in 2016, Then Levels Off

2. The origins, time in country and demographics of unauthorized immigrants in Europe

Unauthorized immigrants residing in Europe in 2017 were from a diverse set of origin countries, had lived in Europe for a relatively short period of time and were relatively young. More than half were male.

Our estimates of characteristics of unauthorized immigrants in Europe do not cover the entire population because of data limitations, but they represent 84% of Europe’s unauthorized immigrant population – an overwhelming majority of the total. The data on characteristics covers asylum seekers waiting for decisions in all 32 EU-EFTA countries, as well as the unauthorized immigrant populations in 18 of the 32 EU-EFTA countries.3 Additionally, separate estimates were produced for the two countries with the largest unauthorized immigrant populations – Germany and the UK. (See the Methodology for more information on how characteristics of unauthorized immigrants in Europe were estimated.)

The diverse origins of Europe’s unauthorized immigrants

A chart showing many nationalities make up the unauthorized immigrant population in Europe

The unauthorized immigrant population of EU and European Free Trade Association countries comes from around the world. Three-in-ten unauthorized immigrants in 2017 were estimated to be from Asia-Pacific countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, while an estimated 23% were from European countries outside of the EU and European Free Trade Association, including Russia and Turkey.4 Some 21% were from countries in the Middle East-North Africa region such as Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, 17% were from sub-Saharan African countries such as Nigeria and Eritrea, and 8% were from countries in the Americas.

In Germany, an estimated third (32%) of unauthorized immigrants in 2017 had European nationalities of non-EU-EFTA countries. Another three-in-ten (30%) were from Middle East-North Africa region countries, and close to a quarter (22%) were from countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

In the UK, about half (52%) of all unauthorized immigrants were estimated to have nationalities from the Asia-Pacific region in 2017, while a fifth (20%) had nationalities from sub-Saharan African countries.

The origins of Europe’s unauthorized immigrants stand in contrast to those of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S., where the Center has been estimating the characteristics of unauthorized immigrants for many years. There, the overwhelming majority (78%) in 2017 were from only one region, the Americas, with Mexicans alone making up nearly half of all unauthorized immigrants.

Most unauthorized immigrants in Europe have lived there less than five years

A chart showing most unauthorized immigrants in Europe have had short periods of residence

In 2017, more than half (56%) of Europe’s unauthorized immigrants are estimated to have lived in their country of residence for less than five years. Almost half of these shorter-term residents were asylum seekers waiting for decisions on their applications.

Another estimated 16% of unauthorized immigrants in Europe in 2017 had lived in their country of residence between five and nine years, while 27% had lived there 10 years or longer.

In Germany, about two-thirds (66%) of unauthorized immigrants had lived in the country for less than five years; many of them were asylum seekers with a pending decision on their application. On the other hand, unauthorized immigrants in UK were more likely to be long-term residents – the majority (57%) had lived there for five years or longer, while 43% had lived there for less than five years.

By comparison, most unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. in 2017 were much more settled, with longer periods of residence. The majority, or about two-thirds (65%), had lived in the U.S. 10 years or longer, 15% for five to nine years, and 20% for less than five years.

More than half of unauthorized immigrants in Europe are male

Men and boys made up a slight majority (54%) of unauthorized immigrants in Europe in 2017. That share was even higher in Germany (60%), while unauthorized immigrants in the UK were about equally male (48%) as female (52%), according to estimates.

Meanwhile, the majority (65%) of Europe’s unauthorized immigrants were younger than 35 in 2017. Similarly, majorities of unauthorized immigrants living in Germany (65%) and the UK (58%) were younger than 35.

A chart showing more than half of unauthorized immigrants in Europe are male and most unauthorized immigrants are relatively young

By comparison, a slight majority (54%) of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. in 2017 were also male. But, unlike in Europe, fewer than half (42%) of U.S. unauthorized immigrants were younger than 35. This difference in age reflects both the longer duration of residence of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. compared with those in Europe and the fact that U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants are U.S. citizens, not unauthorized immigrants.5 A larger share of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. entered the country a decade ago or more, many in their late teens and 20s. By contrast, a young population of asylum seekers entered Europe only a few years ago, and many of them remained part of the unauthorized immigrant population in 2017.

  1. These 18 countries are Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland and the UK. The characteristics are estimated from each country’s labor force survey (see Methodology). These 18 countries account for 80% of the unauthorized immigrants in Europe who are not asylum seekers waiting for decisions.
  2. Specific country examples are drawn from the top nationalities in each region using data representing asylum seekers with pending decisions – a group that makes up large shares of unauthorized immigrants in many European countries. Specific nationality data for unauthorized immigrants not waiting on an asylum claim is unavailable in the survey data used to develop the estimates. See Appendix A for a list of nationalities that make up each region.
  3. The European-born children of unauthorized immigrants are themselves considered unauthorized immigrants. By contrast, U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. are citizens at birth. This added number of unauthorized immigrant minors in Europe likely makes the share under age 18 higher (15%) compared with the U.S. (7%).

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