By the end of 2015 an estimated 1,008,616 people had reached Europe by sea, more than 84% of them from refugee-producing countries and a quarter were children under the age of 18. This report examines what happened next and presents the results of a questionnaire on refugee and migrant reception administered to participants in Greece (300), Sicily (400), and Malta (50), followed by interviews with migrants (45) and key-informants (50) including government representatives, humanitarian agencies, NGOs and activists.

The findings illustrate marked variation between the flows to the two main receiving states, Greece and Italy, as well as Malta, and identify two distinct sub-systems characterised by significant differences in terms of the national and demographic composition of migrant groups, gender, age, and many social characteristics.

The impact on gender was significant. In Greece both men and women are present in more equal numbers (64% male to 46% female), than in Sicily. Women brought with them their children and were likely to travel with family members. In Malta, the presence of women is negligible. Significant differences are also visible in age, educational levels and occupational status with just over of 25% in Greece possessing a university degree.

The majority recorded that they fled persecution, war, famine, and personal insecurity. War was the biggest driver (48.7% in Greece; 23.6 % in Sicily; and 52.8 % Malta) though in Sicily higher numbers reported persecution was the main driver (48%). Only 18% described their motivation as economic. Often insecurity was magnified by other pressures such as inter-ethnic tension and gender-based discrimination and violence. The survey results also record shocking instances of abuse in transit, especially for those who had travelled via Libya. Over 50% had experienced arrest and or detention in transit and 17% were in bonded (unpaid) labour. We received further accounts of migrants, following their arrival in Sicily, being coerced into low paid work.

Although the Reception Conditions Directive sets out minimum standards for the treatment of those in need of international protection and the Common European Asylum System seeks to ensure comparable living conditions for applicants for international protection across the EU, ‘reception’ is not well defined. It is generally thought to start once an asylum application has been filed, though we found many unable to do so. Asylum-seekers and refugees in general are not treated as vulnerable persons; only certain sub-categories are singled out for eligibility for special protection including minors, unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, single parents of minors, victims of torture, rape or other forms of physical, psychological and sexual violence. There is a tendency to privilege protection based on past harm, such as disability, torture, and exploitation, or those who are more dependent on others, such as single parents with young children, or those who require additional support, for example - pregnant women, the elderly or the disabled. Individuals with less visible markers such as victims of torture or with mental health problems may not receive priority processing or access to services.
Approaches to reception differ across the three states with ‘hotspots’ in Greece acting as closed detention centres, in contrast to ‘hotspots’ in Sicily where migrants spend little time. Unlike Greece, Italy does not have camp-like structures. Further differences may be partially explained by the countries’ experience of asylum management. Yet, even in Italy which has long been a receiving and destination state with legislation in place, there is no uniform reception system and migrants may be placed in a number of institutions.

Living conditions in Italy were generally better than in Greece, where accommodation offered ranged from insecure camp-like structures to shared housing and were managed by a plethora of state and other actors. Doctors were present in centres, as were psychologists, though many claimed never to have seen one. Participants in Greece and Italy reported receiving legal assistance from NGOs to support asylum claims, though this was far from universal; on average only 50% of those surveyed claimed to receive such support.

Asylum applications increased during the research period. In Greece, the number of asylum applications in 2016 was three times as high as in 2015 (51,092 compared to 13,195). Most were still not ‘in the system’ as asylum seekers but were allowed to remain temporarily in the country. In 2016, an estimated 123,370 individuals applied for asylum in Italy; while a further 99,920 were pending by the end of the year. Less than 10% enjoyed refugee status. In Malta, the majority had subsidiary protection and were unlikely to gain full refugee status. While only a fraction of those in Greece said they were not planning on applying for asylum; almost 25% of those in Sicily and more than 40% in Malta said they had no plans.


The findings illustrate distinctly different reception systems operating in Greece, Italy and Malta. In Greece in particular, reception has been complicated by the multiplicity of actors involved and the challenge of responding to external pressures, including the closure of borders and relocation initiatives. As a result, migrants in Greece have been detained and left in camp-like situations; in Italy a permissive approach towards refused asylum-seekers has encouraged their informal integration through exploitative labour practices.

Yet, migrants in the reception system in all countries responded most positively to regularisation including the provision of communal living arrangements, stability and educational opportunities for their children. Such conditions are necessary for further life planning and successful integration.
Attitudes towards asylum reflects the composition of migrants in the selected states and a realisation that those not prioritised for relocation on account of their nationality and vulnerability status have fewer options. For those in Greece, separated from family elsewhere in Europe, it is likely there will be future movements.


  1. The governments of Greece, Italy and Malta, working with the European Union and its agencies, as well as the UNHCR and NGOs should treat refugees and migrants with dignity, respecting human rights and affirming their commitments under international and European Union law.
  2. The governments of Greece, Italy and Malta should ensure that those in the reception system enjoy the full range of protection services, and information regarding the asylum and relocation processes.
  3. The government of Greece should discontinue the practice of housing migrants and refugees in dangerous, inhumane and inappropriate reception centres.
  4. The governments of Greece and Italy should affirm their responsibility for managing the reception process, recognising that uncoordinated efforts have complicated the effective management of the reception system and have had a knock-on effect on the relocation process.
  5. The European Commission should instruct EASO to develop new guidelines to standardise and improve the quality of reception across the European Union, in consultation with UNHCR, to improve the reception experience and advance integration, including education and training provision.
  6. The European Union and its partners must continue to work with the UNHCR to build capacity for the Greek government to manage arrivals, protect those in the reception process and asylum system.
  7. The government of Greece should accelerate plans to support successful refugee integration by working with state, local and municipal agencies as well as NGOs and civic actors.
  8. The government of Italy should take steps to correct the informal integration of migrants and prevent migrants falling into exploitative situations by regularising their status, even if only temporarily.
  9. The governments of Greece, Italy and Malta should prosecute those who profit from the illegal exploitation of refugees and migrants in order to disincentive further corrupt and abusive practices.
  10. NGOs and service providers working within the reception system should receive updated training, both technical and non-technical from UNHCR’s partners and other experts in refugee protection to facilitate their interaction with asylum-seekers and to advance appropriate integration efforts.
  11. The governments of Greece and Italy and the European Union institutions should coordinate more closely, providing specific information of those selected for relocation to facilitate integration.
  12. The UNHCR, European Union and their partners should provide data disaggregated by gender so that service providers may better plan the delivery of support and integration services.

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