• Pew Research Centre

Europe’s Growing Muslim Population - Expert Demographic Study

Even if all migration into Europe were to immediately and permanently stop – a “zero migration” scenario – the Muslim population of Europe still would be expected to rise from the current level of 4.9% to 7.4% by the year 2050.

Muslims are projected to increase as a share of Europe’s population – even with no future migration

In recent years, Europe has experienced a record influx of asylum seekers fleeing conflicts in Syria and other predominantly Muslim countries. This wave of Muslim migrants has prompted debate about immigration and security policies in numerous countries and has raised questions about the current and future number of Muslims in Europe.

To see how the size of Europe’s Muslim population may change in the coming decades, Pew Research Center has modeled three scenarios that vary depending on future levels of migration. These are not efforts to predict what will happen in the future, but rather a set of projections about what could happen under different circumstances.

The baseline for all three scenarios is the Muslim population in Europe (defined here as the 28 countries presently in the European Union, plus Norway and Switzerland) as of mid-2016, estimated at 25.8 million (4.9% of the overall population) – up from 19.5 million (3.8%) in 2010.

Even if all migration into Europe were to immediately and permanently stop – a “zero migration” scenario – the Muslim population of Europe still would be expected to rise from the current level of 4.9% to 7.4% by the year 2050. This is because Muslims are younger (by 13 years, on average) and have higher fertility (one child more per woman, on average) than other Europeans, mirroring a global pattern.

A second, “medium” migration scenario assumes that all refugee flows will stop as of mid-2016 but that recent levels of “regular” migration to Europe will continue (i.e., migration of those who come for reasons other than seeking asylum; see note on terms below). Under these conditions, Muslims could reach 11.2% of Europe’s population in 2050.

Finally, a “high” migration scenario projects the record flow of refugees into Europe between 2014 and 2016 to continue indefinitely into the future with the same religious composition (i.e., mostly made up of Muslims) in addition to the typical annual flow of regular migrants. In this scenario, Muslims could make up 14% of Europe’s population by 2050 – nearly triple the current share, but still considerably smaller than the populations of both Christians and people with no religion in Europe.

The refugee flows of the last few years, however, are extremely high compared with the historical average in recent decades, and already have begun to decline as the European Union and many of its member states have made policy changes aimed at limiting refugee flows (see sidebar).

Predicting future migration levels is impossible, because migration rates are connected not only to political and economic conditions outside of Europe, but also to the changing economic situation and government policies within Europe. Although none of these scenarios will play out exactly as projected, each provides a set of rough parameters from which to imagine other possible outcomes. For example, if regular migration continues at recent levels, and some asylum seekers also continue to arrive and receive refugee status – but not as many as during the historically exceptional surge of refugees from 2014 to 2016 – then the share of Muslims in Europe’s population as of 2050 would be expected to be somewhere between 11.2% and 14%.

While Europe’s Muslim population is expected to grow in all three scenarios – and more than double in the medium and high migration scenarios – Europe’s non-Muslims, on the other hand, are projected to decline in total number in each scenario. Migration, however, does mitigate this decline somewhat; nearly half of all recent migrants to Europe (47%) were notMuslim, with Christians making up the next-largest group.

Taken as a whole, Europe’s population (including both Muslims and non-Muslims) would be expected

to decline considerably (from about 521 million to an estimated 482 million) without any future migration. In the medium migration scenario, it would remain roughly stable, while in the high migration scenario it would be projected to grow modestly.

The impact of these scenarios is uneven across different European countries (see maps below); due in large part to government policies, some countries are much more affected by migration than others.

Countries that have received relatively large numbers of Muslim refugees in recent years are projected to experience the biggest changes in the high migration scenario – the only one that projects these heavy refugee flows to continue into the future. For instance, Germany’s population (6% Muslim in 2016) would be projected to be about 20% Muslim by 2050 in the high scenario – a reflection of the fact that Germany has accepted many Muslim refugees in recent years – compared with 11% in the medium scenario and 9% in the zero migration scenario.

Sweden, which also has accepted a relatively high number of refugees, would experience even greater effects if the migration levels from 2014 to mid-2016 were to continue indefinitely: Sweden’s population (8% Muslim in 2016) could grow to 31% Muslim in the high scenario by 2050, compared with 21% in the medium scenario and 11% with no further Muslim migration.

By contrast, the countries projected to experience the biggest changes in the medium scenario (such as the UK) tend to have been destinations for the highest numbers of regular Muslim migrants. This scenario only models regular migration.

And countries with Muslim populations that are especially young, or have a relatively large number of children, would see the most significant change in the zero migration scenario; these include France, Italy and Belgium.

Some countries would experience little change in any of the scenarios,

typically because they have few Muslims to begin with or low levels of immigration (or both).

The starting point for all these scenarios is Europe’s population as of mid-2016. Coming up with an exact count of Muslims currently in Europe, however, is not a simple task. The 2016 estimates are based on Pew Research Center analysis and projections of the best available census and survey data in each country combined with data on immigration from Eurostat and other sources. While Muslim identity is often measured directly, in some cases it must be estimated indirectly based upon the national origins of migrants (see Methodology for details).

How key terms are used in this report: Regular migrants, asylum seekers and refugees

Migrants: This broad category includes all people moving across international borders to live in another country. Regular migrants/other migrants: People who legally move to Europe for any reason other than seeking asylum – e.g., for economic, educational or family reasons.

Asylum seekers: Migrants who apply for refugee status upon entry to Europe. Asylum seekers whose requests for asylum are rejected can appeal the decision but cannot legally stay in Europe if the appeal is denied.

Refugees: Successful asylum seekers and those who are expected to receive legal status once their paperwork is processed. Estimates are based on recent rates of approval by European destination country for each origin country (among first-time applicants) and adjusted for withdrawals of asylum requests, which occur, for example, when asylum seekers move to another European country or outside of Europe.

In limbo: Asylum seekers whose application for asylum has been or is expected to be denied. Though this population may remain temporarily or illegally in Europe, these migrants are excluded from the population estimates and projections in this report.

One source of uncertainty is the status of asylum seekers who are not granted refugee status. An estimated 3.7 million Muslims migrated to Europe between mid-2010 and mid-2016, including approximately 2.5 million regular migrants entering legally as workers, students, etc., as well as 1.3 million Muslims who have or are expected to be granted refugee status (including an estimated 980,000 Muslim refugees who arrived between 2014 and mid-2016).

Based on recent rates of approval of asylum applications, Pew Research Center estimates that nearly a million (970,000) additional Muslim asylum seekers who came to Europe in recent years will not have their applications for asylum accepted, based on past rates of approval on a country-by-country basis. These estimates also take into account expected rates of withdrawals of requests for refugee status (see Methodology for details).

Where these asylum seekers “in limbo” ultimately will go is unclear: Some may leave Europe voluntarily or be deported, while others will remain at least temporarily while they appeal their asylum rejection. Some also could try to stay in Europe illegally.

For the future population projections presented in this report, it is assumed that only Muslim migrants who already have – or are expected to gain – legal status in Europe will remain for the long term, providing a baseline of 25.8 million Muslims as of 2016 (4.9% of Europe’s population). However, if all of the approximately 1 million Muslims who are currently in legal limbo in Europe were to remain in Europe – which seems unlikely – the 2016 baseline could rise as high as 26.8 million, with ripple effects across all three scenarios.

These are a few of the key findings from a new Pew Research Center demographic analysis – part of a broader effort to project the population growth of religious groups around the world. This report, which focuses on Muslims in Europe due to the rapid changes brought on by the recent influx of refugees, provides the first estimates of the growing size of the Muslim population in Europe following the wave of refugees between 2014 and mid-2016. It uses the best available data combined with estimation and projection methods developed in prior Pew Research Center demographic studies. The projections take into account the current size of both the Muslim and non-Muslim populations in Europe, as well as international migration, age and sex composition, fertility and mortality rates, and patterns in conversion. (See Methodology for details.)

Europe’s Muslim population is diverse. It encompasses Muslims born in Europe and in a wide variety of non-European countries. It includes Sunnis, Shiites, and Sufis. Levels of religious commitment and belief vary among Europe’s Muslim populations. Some of the Muslims enumerated in this report would not describe Muslim identity as salient in their daily lives. For others, Muslim identity profoundly shapes their daily lives. However, quantifying religious devotion and categories of Muslim identity is outside the scope of this report.

Between mid-2010 and mid-2016, the number of Muslims in Europe grew considerably through natural increase alone – that is, estimated births outnumbered deaths among Muslims by more than 2.9 million over that period. But most of the Muslim population growth in Europe during the period (about 60%) was due to migration: The Muslim population grew by an estimated 3.5 million from net migration (i.e., the number of Muslims who arrived minus the number who left, including both regular migrants and refugees). Over the same period, there was a relatively small loss in the Muslim population due to religious switching – an estimated 160,000 more people switched their religious identity from Muslim to another religion (or to no religion) than switched into Islam from some other religion or no religion – although this had a modest impact compared with births, deaths and migration.

By comparison, the non-Muslim population in Europe declined slightly between 2010 and 2016. A natural decrease of about 1.7 million people in the non-Muslim European population modestly outnumbered the net increase of non-Muslim migrants and a modest net change due to religious switching.

The rest of the report looks at these findings in greater detail. The first section examines the number of migrants to Europe between mid-2010 and mid-2016, including patterns by religion and refugee status. The next section details the top origin and destination countries for recent migrants to Europe, including in each case the estimated percentage of Muslims. One sidebar looks at European public opinion toward the surge in refugees from countries like Iraq and Syria; another summarizes trends in government policies toward refugees and migration in individual countries and the EU as a whole. The following section examines more deeply the three projection scenarios on a country-by-country basis. Finally, the last two sections reveal data on two other key demographic factors that affect population growth: fertility and age structure.

This report was produced by Pew Research Center as part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, which analyzes religious change and its impact on societies around the world. Funding for the Global Religious Futures project comes from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation.

Surge in refugees – most of them Muslim – between 2014 and mid-2016

Overall, regardless of religion or immigration status, there were an estimated 7 million migrants to Europe between mid-2010 and mid-2016 (not including 1.7 million asylum seekers who are not expected to have their applications for asylum approved).

Historically, a relatively small share of migrants to Europe are refugees from violence or persecution in their home countries.2 This continued to be the case from mid-2010 to mid-2016 – roughly three-quarters of migrants to Europe in this period (5.4 million) were regular migrants (i.e., not refugees).

But the number of refugees has surged since 2014. During the three-and-a-half-year period from mid-2010 to the end of 2013, about 400,000 refugees (an average of 110,000 per year) arrived in Europe. Between the beginning of 2014 and mid-2016 – a stretch of only two and a half years – roughly three times as many refugees (1.2 million, or about 490,000 annually) came to Europe, as conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan continued or intensified. (These figures do not include an additional 970,000 Muslim asylum seekers and 680,000 non-Muslim asylum seekers who arrived between mid-2010 and mid-2016 but are not projected to receive legal status in Europe.)

Of these roughly 1.6 million people who received refugee status in Europe between mid-2010 and mid-2016 (or are expected to have their applications approved in the future), more than three-quarters (78%, or 1.3 million) were estimated to be Muslims.3 By comparison, a smaller percentage of regular migrants to Europe in this period (46%) were Muslims, although this still greatly exceeds the share of Europe’s overall population that is Muslim and thus contributes to Europe’s growing Muslim population. In fact, about two-thirds of all Muslims who arrived in Europe between mid-2010 and mid-2016 were regular migrants and not refugees.

Altogether, a slim majority of all migrants to Europe – both refugees and regular migrants – between mid-2010 and mid-2016 (an estimated 53%) were Muslim. In total number, roughly 3.7 million Muslims and 3.3 million non-Muslims arrived in Europe during this period.

Non-Muslim migrants to Europe overall between mid-2010 and mid-2016 were mostly made up of Christians (an estimated 1.9 million), people with no religious affiliation (410,000), Buddhists (390,000) and Hindus (350,000). Christians made up 30% of migrants overall (1.6 million regular Christian migrants; 55% of all non-Muslim regular migrants) and 16% of all refugees (250,000 Christian refugees; 71% of all non-Muslim refugees).

Syria is top origin country not only for refugees but also for all Muslim migrants to Europe

Considering the total influx of refugees and regular migrants together, more migrants to Europe between mid-2010 and mid-2016 came from Syria than any other country. Of the 710,000 Syrian migrants to Europe during this period, more than nine-in-ten (94%, or 670,000) came seeking refuge from the Syrian civil war, violence perpetrated by the Islamic State or some other strife.

An estimated nine-in-ten Syrian migrants (91%) were Muslims. In this case and many others, migrants’ religious composition is assumed to match the religious composition of their origin country. In some other cases, data are available for migrants from a particular country to a destination country; for example, there is a higher share of Christians among Egyptian migrants to Austria than there is among those living in Egypt. When available, this type of data is used to estimate the religious composition of new migrants. (For more details, see the Methodology.)

After Syria, the largest sources of recent refugees to Europe are Afghanistan (180,000) and Iraq (150,000). Again, in both cases, nearly all of the migrants from these countries were refugees from conflict, and overwhelming majorities from both places were Muslims.

Several other countries, however, were the origin of more overall migrants to Europe. India, for example, was the second-biggest source of migrants to Europe (480,000) between mid-2010 and mid-2016; very few of these migrants came as refugees, and only an estimated 15% were Muslims.

The top countries of origin of migrants in legal limbo are not necessarily the top countries of origin among legally accepted refugees. For example, relatively few Syrians are in legal limbo, while Albania, where fewer asylum seekers come from, is the origin of a large number of rejected applicants. Afghanistan, meanwhile, is both a major source of legally accepted refugees and also a major country of origin of those in legal limbo.

Since the primary criterion for asylum decisions is the safety of the origin country, particularly dangerous countries, such as Syria, have much higher acceptance rates than others. For more information on the countries of origin of those in legal limbo see Pew Research Center’s 2017 report, “Still in Limbo: About a Million Asylum Seekers Await Word on Whether They Can Call Europe Home.”

Syria also was by far the single biggest source of Muslim migrants to Europe overall in recent years. But Morocco, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran also sent considerable numbers of Muslim migrants to Europe between mid-2010 and mid-2016 – more than 1 million combined – and the vast majority of Muslims from these countries came to Europe as regular migrants and not as refugees.

Germany is top destination for Muslim refugees; UK is leading destination for regular Muslim migrants

Germany was the destination for an estimated 670,000 refugees between mid-2010 and mid-2016 – more than three times as many as the country with the next-largest number, Sweden (200,000). A similar number of regular migrants from outside Europe also arrived in Germany in recent years (680,000). But religiously, refugees and other migrants to Germany look very different; an estimated 86% of refugees accepted by Germany were Muslims, compared with just 40% of regular migrants to Germany.

Germany has the largest population and economy in Europe, is centrally located on the continent and has policies favorable toward asylum seekers (for more on EU policies toward refugees, see this sidebar). The UK, however, actually was the destination for a larger number of migrants from outside Europe overall between mid-2010 and mid-2016 (1.6 million). The UK voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU, which may impact immigration patterns in the future, but it is still counted as part of Europe in this report.

Relatively few recent immigrants to the UK (60,000) were refugees, but more than 1.5 million regular migrants arrived there in recent years. Overall, an estimated 43% of all migrants to the UK between mid-2010 and mid-2016 were Muslims.

Combining Muslim refugees and Muslim regular migrants, Germany was the destination for more Muslim migrants overall than the UK (850,000 vs. 690,000).

France also received more than half a million Muslim migrants – predominantly regular migrants – between mid-2010 and mid-2016, while 400,000 Muslims arrived in Italy. The two countries accepted a combined total of 210,000 refugees (130,000 by Italy and 80,000 by France), most of whom were Muslims.

Sweden received even more refugees than the UK, Italy and France, all of which have much larger populations. A large majority of these 200,000 refugees (an estimated 77%) were Muslims; Sweden also received 250,000 regular migrants, most of whom were Muslims (58%). Overall, 300,000 Muslim migrants – 160,000 of whom were refugees – arrived in Sweden in recent years.

Only Germany, the UK, France and Italy received more Muslim migrants to Europe overall since mid-2010. But because Sweden is home to fewer than 10 million people, these arrivals have a bigger impact on Sweden’s overall religious composition than does Muslim migration to larger countries in Western Europe.

These estimates do not include migration from one EU country to another. Some countries, particularly Germany, received a large number of regular migrants from within the EU. In fact, with about 800,000 newcomers from other EU countries, Germany received more intra-EU migrants than regular migrants from outside the EU. Intra-EU migrants tend to have a similar religious composition to Europeans overall.