Study shows lengthy waits for asylum applicants in Europe

More than half of the migrants who entered Europe amid a mass influx in 2015 and 2016 were still awaiting decisions on asylum applications by the end of the period, and only a small percentage had been turned down and sent home, according to a study released Wednesday.

The Pew Research Center said of the 2.2 million asylum-seekers who reached Europe during those years, 52 percent were still awaiting decisions on their applications by the end of 2016. Forty percent had their applications approved, while 3 percent were ejected from countries where they sought protection.

Most asylum-seekers entered Europe by crossing into Greece and Italy, but many then continued north to apply for asylum in other European countries.

The number of newcomers was so great in some smaller countries that it changed the demographics noticeably, Pew said. Countries where immigrants as a share of the population increased by more than 1 percentage point included Sweden, Hungary and Austria.

Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, where violent conflicts sent people fleeing in record numbers , were the top countries of origin for asylum-seekers and accounted for 53 percent of all the 2015-16 applicants in Europe, according to government data analyzed by the Washington-based researcher center.

Germany received the most asylum-seekers with 1,090,000 applicants, but was among the countries most efficient at processing requests. Pew's study found that 49 percent of applicants in Germany were waiting for decisions by the end of 2016. Other countries with better than average decision rates were Sweden, Belgium, Netherlands and Italy.

Hungary, where the government remains virulently anti-immigrant, had the worst rate, with 94 percent of its 70,000 applicants still awaiting decisions by the end of 2016. It was followed by Greece, Spain, Finland, Austria, Norway, France, Britain, Switzerland and Denmark — all above the average rate.

Overall, 885,000 asylum-seekers had their applications approved by the end of 2016, while Pew estimated that 75,000 were returned to their home countries. The whereabouts of another 100,000 refugees and migrants who had their applications rejected was unknown. Pew said they may have stayed in Europe illegally, left Europe, or applied for some other form of immigrant status.

Pew said Syrians seeking asylum in Germany had some of the shortest waits for decisions — three months during 2015 and 2016. By contrast, Pew said, the average wait time for asylum seekers in Norway, which had 35,000 applications, was more than a year.

Part of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's strategy to deal with the large number of arrivals was to fast-track the process for those almost certain to be granted asylum — such as Syrians fleeing their country's bloody civil war — and to expels others such as migrants from the Balkans.

Germany returned more asylum applicants than other country, Pew noted.