Photo by Frontex

Decrease in Illegal Border Crossings in Europe as Spain Becomes the New Gateway for Illegal Migrants

Last year the number of illegal border-crossings at Europe’s external borders fell by a quarter compared with 2017 to an estimated 150,000, the lowest level in five years. The total for 2018 was also 92% below the peak of the migratory crisis in 2015.

The drop was primarily due to the dramatic fall in the number of migrants taking the Central Mediterranean route to Italy. The number of detections of irregular crossings on this route plunged by 80% compared to 2017.

The Central Mediterranean route saw the smallest number of irregular entries since 2012. The number of departures from Libya dropped 87% from a year ago, and those from Algeria fell by nearly a half. Departures from Tunisia stayed roughly unchanged. Tunisians and Eritreans were the two most represented nationalities on this route, together accounting for a third of all migrants.

This decrease in numbers using the Central Mediterranean route is partly a result of new measures to restrict irregular migration adopted by EU Member States, including increased cooperation with Libya, which has been the main embarkation country for the Central Mediterranean migration route. The number of people being detained by the Libyan Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration has continued growing (from 5,000 to 9,300 between May and July 2018), with thousands more held in unofficial detention facilities.

Italy has also taken a much harder line, refusing entry to a rescue ship which had more than 600 migrants on board.

Meanwhile, the number of arrivals in Spain via the Western Mediterranean route doubled last year for the second year in a row to 57,000, making it the most active migratory route into Europe. Indeed, it was Spain who allowed the aforementioned rescue ship to dock in Valencia after also being refused entry by Malta.

On the Western Mediterranean route, Morocco has become the main departure point to Europe. Most of the migrants on this route originated from sub-Saharan countries, although in recent months the number of Moroccan migrants has increased to become the top reported nationality, followed by Guineans, Malians and Algerians. Because the migrants are originating from different countries than those who attempt to use the Central Mediterranean route, it is not simply a case of the same people using a different route, which shows the action in Libya is yielding results.

Spain has already reported over 400 migrant attempts this year, and now faces a challenge in balancing its desire to help a humanitarian crisis with criticism from its own citizens and leaders across Europe who want to see greater security at the region’s borders.

The number of detections of illegal border-crossings on the Eastern Mediterranean route rose by nearly a third to 56,000. This was mainly caused by a higher number of migrants crossing the land border between Turkey and Greece, while the total number of detections in the Eastern Aegean Sea was roughly in line with 2017. Nevertheless, the number of arrivals registered in Cyprus more than doubled. Nationals of Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq accounted for the largest number of irregular migrants on the sea route in the Eastern Mediterranean, while Turkish nationals were the main nationality on the Turkish-Greek land border.

Last year, the European Border Guard agency, Frontex began to collect detailed data on the gender and the age of irregular migrants for the first time. These showed that women accounted for 18% of all illegal border-crossings on entry from third countries. Nearly one in five of the detected migrants claimed to be under the age of 18, with close to 4,000 unaccompanied minors reported on entry at the EU external borders in 2018.

Kylie Bull has 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. She is an editor and contributor for Jane's by IHS Markit, a columnist for security and counter-terror publications, and a former managing editor for Homeland Security Today.

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