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Iceland received the most refugees per capita in 2020 among the Nordics

Iceland received the most refugees per capita in 2020 among the Nordics

| Text: Björn Lindahl, photo: UNHCR/Vincent Tremeau

Immigration to OECD countries fell by 30% in 2020 to 3.7 million people. That is the lowest level since 2003. Denmark, Finland and Norway received fewer asylum seekers per capita than the OECD average, while Iceland and Sweden took in considerably more.

The International Migration Outlook 2021, the OECD’s annual report on migration and integration, shows that the pandemic had a huge impact on the 2020 numbers. Corona hit people with foreign heritage, and especially young people, more than other groups.

As he presented the report, the OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann warned that an entire decade’s progress of bridging the gap in employment and unemployment between immigrants and native citizens had been eradicated. 

Employment levels among immigrants in three out of four OECD countries fell during the pandemic. On average, employment levels among foreign-born are now three percentage points lower than those among the native-born. Unemployment among immigrants is two percentage points higher.  

The OECD has 38 member states, and its statistics look slightly different from what we are used to seeing with European eyes. For the second year running, the highest number of asylum seekers came from Venezuela, followed by Afghanistan and Syria. Six in ten of the asylum seekers’ main country of origin were in Latin America 

Among all the OCED countries, the USA has received the most asylum seekers since 2017. In 2020, the country saw 250,000 applications, which represented a 17 % drop compared with the previous year. Germany is in second place with 103,000 applications.  

Last year, Spain was for the first time among the three countries that had the most asylum applications with 86,000. Nine in ten of those seeking asylum in Spain came from Latin America or the Caribbean.

The Latin American refugee wave has had a smaller impact on other European countries, where Afghanistan has become the most acute problem.

“So far EU countries have already evacuated more than 18,000 Afghans who worked for EU countries, but also journalists, female football players, female judges, fundamental rights defenders and others in need of protection,” said Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs with responsibility for EU’s refugee and integration policies, in a comment to the report.  

The report notes that the Nordic region as a whole no longer has a very generous refugee policy. 

“The Nordic countries have long been among the OECD countries that receive the highest number of asylum seekers. However, in 2020 there were considerably fewer people seeking asylum in the Nordics compared to previous years. In fact, 2020 has been a low-water mark compared to the 15 previous years in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway,” the report's authors write.

Table 1

The grid shows that Iceland and Sweden received the most asylum seekers per capita compared to the other Nordic countries. Source: OECD 

Sweden, however, did receive a significant number of asylum seekers – both in numbers and relative to the country’s population size. But it was in fact Iceland that received the most asylum seekers per one million citizens. Since there are not one million Icelanders, the average number is three times higher than the total number of asylum seekers, of which there were 630. The three largest groups of asylum seekers came from Palestine, Iraq and Venezuela. 

Source: Directorate of immigration, Iceland

Asylum seekers from Venezuela have so far this year been the largest group  of refugees in Iceland. Source: Útlendingastofnun.

The number of foreign-born people in Iceland has nearly doubled between 2010 and 2020. 

Asylum seekers are just one of several groups of migrants. Some of the other major groups include family reunions, labour migrants, seasonal workers and students. According to the OECD report, family reunions was the group that fell the most with 35 %, while labour migration fell 24 %. 

The pandemic did not have that much of an effect on migration patterns between different EU countries, nor for seasonal workers. The latter fell by 10 % on average across the OECD. In certain countries like the USA and Poland, it even increased despite the pandemic. 

Foreign-born people were harder hit than the rest of the population in most OECD countries. Yet the effect on employment and unemployment was highest in the Nordic region, except from in Denmark and Finland. In Sweden, foreign-born people were four times more hard-hit than the native population, according to the OECD.

Table 2

The grid shows unemployment among foreign-born people and how this changed compared to 2019. The last column shows the gap between the foreign-born and the native population (in percentage points). Source: OECD

Most asylum seekers from Venezuela – also in Iceland

Six of the ten countries where most people fled from in 2020 are in Latin America. For the second year in a row, Venezuela is the country from which most people flee to one of the OECD countries. This is also noticeable in Iceland, where Venezuelans have so far this year been the largest group among asylum seekers. However, most flee to neighbouring countries such as Colombia (above).


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