UNHCR staff greeting asylum-seekers at the airport
UNHCR staff and partners greet asylum-seekers at Rome’s Fiumicino airport after they disembark from an evacuation flight from Libya before being transferred to reception facilities.
© UNHCR/Valerio Muscella
16 June 2022
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This information about the region in 2021 is an extended version of the regional chapter in the Global Report 2021, which you can download here. The Global Report also contains information on funding and thematic chapters on UNHCR's work to achieve its Global Strategic Priorities and other initiatives.


Executive summary

Despite COVID-19 continuing throughout 2021, over 123,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe, 29% more than in 2020. The vast majority arrived via sea crossings on which 3,130 people died or went missing. Most arrived in Italy, which received almost twice as many people as in 2020. Reception conditions in some States were substandard and overcrowded, heightening protection risks, particularly for unaccompanied and separated children, LGBTIQ+ individuals and victims of trafficking.  

The Office advocated for improved protection and expressed grave concern over reported expulsions and violent pushbacks of refugees and asylum seekers, and over moves towards externalizing asylum and protection obligations. UNHCR’s court interventions succeeded in five out of six cases, notably on pushbacks, detention, and family reunification. Six new interventions were submitted, including two before the Court of Justice of the European Union. UNHCR implemented projects addressing gender-based violence in 10 countries. 

To spur the vaccination of refugees and asylum seekers against COVID-19, UNHCR addressed administrative barriers, vaccine hesitancy and misinformation, advocated for inclusion in social protection schemes, and provided cash and in-kind support to vulnerable people of concern. UNHCR and partners delivered information sessions on preventive measures and vaccination in collective accommodation in Armenia, Bulgaria, and Romania, where UNHCR also ran hotlines for COVID-19-related questions. When schools closed, UNHCR supported distance learning by providing laptops and connectivity and advocated for the inclusion of displaced learners in national education plans. 

The Office organized a conference on statelessness with the Council of Europe, while Albania and Ukraine moved forward on statelessness determination procedures and Iceland acceded to both statelessness conventions. 

UNHCR handed most of its “Emergency support to integration and accommodation” (ESTIA) programme to the Government of Greece, enabling the Office to refocus on core protection activities and integrating recognized refugees. 

UNHCR coordinated protection and shelter in eastern Ukraine, operating on both sides of the contact line, undertaking shelter repairs and community projects for basic services in isolated areas. It assisted affected populations in Government-controlled areas with cash, legal aid and services for persons with specific needs. UNHCR also provided logistical support to humanitarian convoys on behalf of the United Nations Humanitarian Country Team. In Armenia and Azerbaijan, UNHCR assisted conflict-affected people and undertook visits to assess conditions for eventual returns. The Office revised its strategy for mixed movements in the Western Balkans to strengthen asylum systems and help identify solutions. The regional housing programme had assisted 8,800 families by the end of 2021, towards its 11,800 goal for 2022.  

1,400 unaccompanied children in precarious conditions on the Greek islands and 3,500 vulnerable asylum seekers and international protection holders were relocated to other European countries. Despite the pandemic, 21,000 people overall were resettled in Europe.  

Inclusion was a challenge for many States. UNHCR and the Migration Policy Group developed an integration toolkit for municipalities, field-tested in seven countries. A financial inclusion workshop in Bulgaria led to refugees gaining access to financial services, and UNHCR and the Microfinance Centre partnered to enhance financial inclusion. UNHCR supported refugee inclusion in education by rolling out “Teaching for Refugees”, a training programme for primary and secondary teachers. 80 teachers in North Macedonia and the United Kingdom were trained as an initial step.   

The movement of migrants and asylum seekers from Belarus into the European Union prompted strict border procedures, leading to restrictions on access to protection. UNHCR advocated for access to territory and asylum, provided basic emergency assistance for several thousand people stranded in precarious conditions, and worked on solutions for individuals of concern.   

Impact of the Global Compact on Refugees

The implementation of the 467 pledges made by European entities at the 2019 Global Refugee Forum progressed significantly. By year end, 55% were in progress, 39% were fulfilled and 13 were in the planning stage. The engagement of States and other stakeholders was demonstrated by the submission of more than 200 official updates in preparation for the High-Level Officials Meeting

The prevention and reduction of statelessness made headway. Iceland acceded to both statelessness conventions. Ukraine put its statelessness determination procedures into operation, and Albania’s Law on Aliens, which foresees the establishment of statelessness determination procedures, entered into force.  

Community sponsorship initiatives increased, engaging new actors in receiving and supporting refugees. One such initiative enhanced coordination among Spain’s central, regional and local authorities to better welcome and integrate refugees. The creation of humanitarian corridors in Italy also offered solutions to many refugees from outside the region. 

COVID-19 hampered integration and inclusion but pledging entities across Europe persevered with efforts to enhance the right to work. UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding with Serbia’s Government and National Employment Service, facilitating refugees’ access to specific employment measures. 

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Key results and trends in 2021

UNHCR'S programmatic results

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Chart - Cash assistance
Chart - Cash assistance by sector
Chart 2
Chart - Access to information on refugee status determination procedures
Chart 3
Chart - Resettlement departures to countries in Europe
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UNHCR'S COVID-19 response

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Financial information

Consequences of underfunding

The region’s budget of $697 million was 52% funded. 70% of funds were earmarked or tightly earmarked to specific country operations, limiting UNHCR’s agility in case of unforeseen emergencies. Thus, UNHCR relied on flexible funding to respond effectively to emerging and protracted needs. When the Nagorno-Karabakh emergency caused 90,000 people to flee to Armenia, 90% of them women and children, flexible funding was crucial in the coordinated multisector response to meet their urgent needs. Prior to the launch of UNHCR's emergency appeal, UNHCR had only limited financial capacity to deliver assistance on the required scale. Flexible funding also enabled the implementation of UNHCR’s regular programmes.  

Rising refugee flows brought new challenges, such as the need to secure solutions for 3,700 migrants and asylum seekers stranded on the border of Poland and Belarus in November 2021. Available funding covered only 40% of the identified needs. 

Underfunding often translated into harsh outcomes for people in need. Economic volatility in Türkiye caused a spike in the price of essential items, significantly affecting the vulnerable population, including 4 million refugees in Türkiye. UNHCR launched a top-up payment to its existing COVID-19 cash assistance, reaching 88,799 households. But the operation was only 31% funded and protection outreach was limited, and UNHCR’s cash for protection stretched to only 4,500 households. 

Budget by pillar

Budget and expenditure

Chart 5 - funding
funding chart
Chart 4 - Poc
Population chart
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Key achievements and impact

Ensuring access to territory, asylum procedures and adequate reception 

A temporary easing of COVID-19 travel restrictions saw arrivals in southern Europe return to pre-pandemic levels. Thousands of migrants and refugees arrived legally in Belarus with the intention to move onward to the European Union. However, authorities in neighbouring EU countries declared states of emergency in border areas, constructed border barriers and enacted legal amendments restraining access to asylum. UNHCR stepped up its advocacy and operational response to address humanitarian and protection concerns at the borders. The Office intervened with concerned national authorities and the EU to discuss access to asylum for people in need in accordance with international refugee law standards. UNHCR sought solutions based on individuals’ personal situations and provided counselling and basic emergency assistance, helping authorities and partners meet the urgent needs of several thousand people stranded in precarious conditions along border areas.  

Overall, 28,000 people of concern received legal assistance and 60,000 were provided with information on status determination procedures. Efforts to assist with identification of protection needs among arrivals, including children and survivors of gender-based violence, continued in key locations in Italy and Spain, and support was provided for improving reception conditions, notably in Cyprus. Over 37,000 people of concern across Europe benefited from improved reception conditions. Onward movements within and towards Europe were a critical policy challenge for destination and transit States. The “Strategy for UNHCR Engagement in mixed movement in the Western Balkans” was updated to support the strengthening of asylum systems and identification of viable solutions for refugees and asylum seekers. 

Building and maintaining effective community-based protection 

UNHCR worked closely with partners, including civil society, to ensure inclusion of people of concern in national vaccination plans, public health responses and social protection schemes. UNHCR and partners delivered information sessions on COVID-19 preventive measures and vaccination in collective accommodation, for example in Armenia, Bulgaria and Romania, where UNHCR also set up hotlines for COVID-19-related questions. To mitigate the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the livelihoods of refugees and asylum seekers, cash assistance benefited over 382,000 individuals in eastern and south-eastern Europe and the South Caucasus. Across the region, 635 refugee-led and community-based organizations were supported – a 690% increase from 80 in 2020. 

UNHCR and the European Coalition of Migrants and Refugees organized Refugee Re-Connect in September 2021, a regional conference on refugee leadership, participation and volunteerism that brought together 175 refugee-led organizations, leaders and activists from 27 countries. Concrete recommendations on refugee leadership and participation, civic engagement and access to the labour market were addressed to local and national actors, civil society, donors and international organizations. 

Securing solutions for refugees and internally displaced people 

In Greece, the EU-funded “Emergency support to integration and accommodation” programme was handed over to the Government, with transition of the accommodation component. 16 European countries pledged 1,587 places for the relocation of unaccompanied children and 3,288 places for other vulnerable persons. UNHCR and the Government of Serbia signed a memorandum of understanding on joint activities to promote the economic inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers. With the support of UNHCR, IKEA INGKA expanded its “skills for employment” (S4E) initiative to 10 more countries in Europe, providing training to refugees and strengthening their socioeconomic inclusion. To promote access to decent employment for forcibly displaced people, UNHCR and ILO developed a project to identify sectors where economic inclusion could be enhanced. UNHCR supported the empowerment of IDP communities involved in direct advocacy with local authorities over housing solutions. In Georgia, UNHCR maintained its support for a “humanitarian corridor” allowing vulnerable individuals residing in Abkhazia to travel to access pensions, benefits and allowances, and to buy essential medicines through mobile services. In Bulgaria, a financial inclusion workshop enabled refugees to start accessing microcredit. In Ukraine, progress was made during the reporting period with the development of a refugee integration strategy for 2022 and beyond, for which UNHCR mapped integration needs and opportunities. 

UNHCR and the Migration Policy Group and integration stakeholders from seven pilot countries developed a toolkit for municipalities, “Effective inclusion of refugees: participatory approaches for practitioners at the local level”. 

Preventing, addressing and resolving statelessness 

With Iceland's accession to both of the United Nations statelessness instruments in January 2021, the number of States in Europe that are party to the 1954 and 1961 statelessness conventions rose to 40 and 34, respectively. In March 2021, the European Commission adopted the first comprehensive “EU strategy on the rights of the child”, explicitly recognizing the special needs of stateless children and urging European Union member States to ensure access to birth registration for all children. 

UNHCR’s advocacy on establishing and improving existing statelessness determination procedures (SDPs) started bearing fruit. Ukraine started implementing its new procedures in May 2021 and Albania’s Law on Aliens entered into force in November 2021, paving the way for dedicated statelessness procedures. At conference in Montenegro, discussion of procedural aspects and access to rights fed into upcoming law reforms to strengthen Montenegro’s procedures.  

Increased advocacy with regional organizations in the lead-up to the High-Level Officials Meeting in December 2021 and around the 60th anniversary of the 1961 Convention included the organization of several events in collaboration with regional actors like the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. An international conference on statelessness, jointly convened by the Council of Europe and UNHCR in Strasbourg, gave additional impetus to the goals of the Global Action Plan to End Statelessness

Strengthening evidence-based external engagement 

In the spirit of a whole-of-society approach, UNHCR strengthened partnerships with civil society across Europe, including faith-based organizations, NGOs and refugee-led organizations. A new partnership with the European Football Association (UEFA) facilitated joint advocacy activities in stadiums during the Euro 2021 tournament. Stronger partnerships were pursued through NGO dialogues and consultations jointly organized with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies. At the regional level, the Office was actively engaged in inter-agency processes, co-chairing the Issue-based Coalition on Large Movements of People, Displacement and Resilience with IOM. This resulted in the development of key advocacy messages in support of the inclusion of refugees and migrants in COVID-19 vaccination campaigns across the continent. Lastly, in support of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, and the reform of the United Nations Development System, UNHCR worked with Resident Coordinators and United Nations country teams in support of the development of high-quality United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Frameworks and Common Country Analyses in six countries (Albania, Moldova, Serbia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) in 2021. 

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Western and Central Mediterranean Situation

Arrivals (refugees and migrants)

In 2021, Europe received 29% more arrivals via the Mediterranean and north-western African maritime routes than in 2020. Arrivals remained stable in Spain but decreased by 43% in Greece. In 2021, some 2,000 people were known to have lost their lives or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea, 41% more than in 2020. In addition, it is estimated that a further 1,153 people lost their lives or went missing along the north-western African maritime routes although the actual numbers are likely higher. 

123,000 arrivals:

  • Greece: 9,200
  • Spain: 43,000
  • Italy: 67,000
  • Malta: 800
  • Cyprus: 2,900

8% women, 16% children, 76% men 

In Cyprus, critical protection concerns in reception conditions were addressed through advocacy, daily interventions and the provision of core relief items (48 relief housing units, 20 tents, 500 camp beds and 11,000 blankets) to 6,000 beneficiaries, with particular focus on prevention and response to gender-based violence as well as unaccompanied and separated children’s needs, notably through a guide for the implementation of the best interest principle for children. UNHCR helped address the asylum backlog through support to national asylum systems.

In Greece, UNHCR supported COVID-19 prevention and response with screening, isolation and quarantine medical units near reception centres on the Aegean islands and Evros, and for new arrivals. UNHCR also transferred over 2,100 immunocompromised individuals from overcrowded island centres to safer accommodation and strengthened water and sanitation capacity in order to improve hygiene conditions. Essential UNHCR interventions on child protection, gender-based violence and protection of persons with specific needs were implemented, with over 2,000 best interest assessments conducted on unaccompanied and separated children and over 370 adolescents enrolled in dedicated support programmes. In addition, some 650 gender-based violence survivors received both psychosocial and legal support. In the eastern Aegean islands, UNHCR promoted the creation of protection hubs, to facilitate access to protection services. Regular and thematic monitoring of reception conditions on the islands and on the mainland, as well as targeted interventions such as distribution of core relief items, addressed important gaps.

In Italy, UNHCR contributed to addressing obstacles to integration and limited access to reliable information, through support to a national system for identification and referral of people with specific needs and outreach activities in formal and informal settlements. Counselling and communication with communities were strengthened with the Numero Verde toll-free number and the JumaMap multilingual information portal that provided information on services and COVID-19. UNHCR promoted its integration initiatives, a one-stop shop for services and documentation and its “Welcome” job inclusion project with authorities; and began implementation of its community matching programme. 

In Malta, UNHCR supported asylum authorities to ensure access to territory and asylum procedures, while monitoring reception conditions and alternatives to detention. Efforts were made to identify and respond to the specific needs of people of concern. UNHCR engaged with integration stakeholders, including in employment and education and ran workshops for women and men on gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, and sexual health. UNHCR also provided psychological and legal support on gender-based violence to 31 people of concern.

In Spain, in the Canary Islands, Ceuta and Melilla, efforts were enhanced to focus on identification of protection needs among arrivals, including children and persons with special needs, and to support authorities in devising improved mechanisms to guarantee access to the asylum procedure. UNHCR advocated for fast and fair quality asylum procedures, support to the resettlement programme, and the establishment of a community sponsorship programme. UNHCR sought to enhance refugees’ participation through volunteer, empowerment and training programmes.