Pew Research Center, November 29, 2017
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.
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).
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 not Muslim, 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.
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).
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).
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.
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.1
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Does public opinion toward refugees invariably turn negative as their numbers rise? Apparently not. In some European countries that have attracted large numbers of refugees from Iraq and Syria, public levels of concern about these refugees are relatively low. Meanwhile, in some countries where there are fewer refugees from Iraq and Syria, a much higher share of the public says they pose a “major threat,” according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey.
For instance, Germany has been the primary destination country for asylum seekers from the Middle East, receiving 457,000 applications from Iraqis and Syrians between mid-2010 and mid-2016. Yet the share of people in Germany who say “large numbers of refugees from countries such as Iraq and Syria” pose a “major threat” is among the lowest of all European countries surveyed (28%).
Similarly, in Sweden, just 22% of the public says these refugees constitute a “major threat.” Iraqi and Syrian asylum seekers make up an even greater share of Sweden’s population than Germany’s; there are 139 asylum seekers from these countries for every 10,000 Swedes.
By contrast, majorities of the public in Greece (67%), Italy (65%) and Poland (60%) say large numbers of refugees from countries such as Iraq and Syria represent a “major threat,” even though there are relatively few such asylum seekers in these countries.4 Indeed, there are fewer than 10,000 people from Iraq and Syria seeking asylum in Italy and Poland combined, representing one or fewer per 10,000 residents in each country.
This pattern is not universal. Hungary received 85,000 applications for asylum from Iraqi and Syrian refugees between mid-2010 and mid-2016 — among the highest figures in Europe — and most Hungarians (66%) see this surge of refugees as a major threat. Hungary’s government decided to close its border with Croatia in October 2015, erecting a fence to keep migrants out. Tens of thousands of applications for asylum in Hungary have been withdrawn since 2015. (For more on government policies toward migration, see this sidebar.)
EU restrictions on migration tightening after surge
Another common path for large numbers of migrants to Europe is from sub-Saharan Africa to Italy, where they primarily arrive by sea from the Libyan coast. To try to stem the tide, Italy has worked with the Libyan coast guard to develop techniques to stop boats carrying the migrants, among other policies and tactics.
Sweden and Austria also have accepted high numbers of refugees, especially relative to their small populations. But in November 2015, leaders announced a tightening of Sweden’s refugee policy, requiring identity checks to be imposed on all forms of transportation, and limiting family reunification with refugees. And in an October 2017 election, Austrian voters favored parties that had campaigned on taking a harder line on immigration.
How Europe’s Muslim population is projected to change in future decades
Pew Research Center’s three scenarios projecting the future size of the Muslim population in Europe reflect uncertainty about future migration flows due to political and social conditions outside of Europe, as well as shifting immigration policies in the region.
These projections start from an estimated baseline of 26 million Muslims in Europe as of 2016, which excludes asylum seekers who are not expected to gain legal status. Even with no future migration, Europe’s Muslim population is projected to increase by 10 million by 2050 based on fertility and age patterns (see here). If past levels of regular migration continue in the future — but with no more asylum seekers — the Muslim population in Europe would increase to nearly 58 million by midcentury (the medium scenario). And if the heavy refugee flows seen in recent years were to continue in the future on top of regular migration (the high migration scenario), there would be more than 75 million Muslims in Europe as of 2050.
In all three scenarios, the non-Muslim population in Europe is projected to shrink in total number between now and 2050.
But some countries — even some large ones, like Poland — had very few Muslims in 2016 and are projected to continue to have very few Muslims in 2050 in all three scenarios. Poland’s Muslim population was roughly 10,000 in 2016 and would only rise to 50,000 in the medium scenario and 60,000 in the high scenario.
Even if every EU country plus Norway and Switzerland immediately closed its borders to any further migration, the Muslim share of the population in these 30 countries would be expected to rise from 4.9% in 2016 to 7.4% in 2050 simply due to prevailing demographic trends. In the medium migration scenario, with projected future regular migration but no refugees, the Muslim share of Europe would rise to 11.2% by midcentury. And if high refugee flows were to continue in future decades, Europe would be 14% Muslim in 2050 — a considerable increase, although still a relative minority in a Christian-majority region.
Even in the medium scenario, without any future refugee flows, Sweden would be expected to have the second-largest Muslim share (20.5%) as of 2050. If migration were to stop altogether, a much smaller percentage of Swedes (11.1%) would be Muslim in 2050.
Muslims have an average of one more child per woman than other Europeans
Migration aside, fertility rates are among the other dynamics driving Europe’s growing Muslim population. Europe’s Muslims have more children than members of other religious groups (or people with no religion) in the region. (New Muslim migrants to Europe are assumed to have fertility rates that match those of Muslims in their destination countries; for more details, see Methodology.)
Taken as a whole, non-Muslim European women are projected to have a total fertility rate of 1.6 children, on average, during the 2015-2020 period, compared with 2.6 children per Muslim woman in the region. This difference of one child per woman is particularly significant given that fertility among European Muslims exceeds replacement level (i.e., the rate of births needed to sustain the size of a population) while non-Muslims are not having enough children to keep their population steady.
The difference between Muslim women and others varies considerably from one European country to another. In some countries, the disparity is large. The current estimated fertility rate for Muslim women in Finland, for example, is 3.1 children per woman, compared with 1.7 for non-Muslim Finns.6
Among Western European countries with the largest Muslim populations, Germany’s Muslim women have relatively low fertility, at just 1.9 children per woman (compared with 1.4 for non-Muslim Germans). Muslims in the UK and France, meanwhile, average 2.9 children — a full child more per woman than non-Muslims. This is one reason the German Muslim population — both in total number and as a share of the overall population — is not projected to keep pace with the British and French Muslim populations, except in the high scenario (which includes large future refugee flows).
In some countries, including Bulgaria and Greece, there is little difference in fertility rates between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Over time, Muslim fertility rates are projected to decline, narrowing the gap with the non-Muslim population from a full child per woman today to 0.7 children between 2045 and 2050. This is because the fertility rates of second- and third-generation immigrants generally become similar to the overall rates in their adopted countries.
The low fertility rate in Europe among non-Muslims is largely responsible for the projected decline in the region’s total population without future migration.
Young Muslim population in Europe contributes to growth of a religious group also is an important determinant of demographic growth.
Muslims are concentrated in young age groups — the share of Muslims younger than 15 (27%) is nearly double the share of non-Muslims who are children (15%). And while one-in-ten non-Muslim Europeans are ages 75 and older, this is true of only 1% of Muslims in Europe.
As of 2016, there is a 13-year difference between the median age of Muslims in Europe (30.4 years of age) and non-Muslim Europeans (43.8). Because a larger share of Muslims relative to the general population are in their child-bearing years, their population would grow faster, even if Muslims and non-Muslims had the same fertility rates.
As of 2016, France and Germany have the greatest age differences in Europe between Muslims and non-Muslims. The median age of Muslims in France is just 27, compared with 43 for non-Muslims. Germany has an equally large gap (31 for Muslims, 47 for non-Muslims).
[Editor’s Note: The original story is accompanied by many useful charts and maps.]