The total number of reported detections of illegal border-crossing along the European Union’s (EU) external borders fell in 2019 to the lowest level since 2013, according to new data from Frontex – the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. The observed irregular migration patterns did not deviate greatly from previous years, so grouping illegal border-crossings into chiefly the Western, Central and Eastern Mediterranean routes continues to be instructive.
On the EU’s eastern borders as well as on the circular route from Albania southwards into the EU, the lowest numbers were reported since the Frontex Risk Analysis Network started collecting data. However, the relative decrease in 2019 compared with previous years was mostly due to a drop in migrants intercepted and rescued in the Central and Western Mediterranean. In contrast, detections on the Eastern Mediterranean, Western Balkan and Western African routes recorded significantly higher numbers of detections compared with 2018.
The reversal in the long-term trend of growing migratory pressure on the Western Mediterranean route, which occurred in the spring of 2019, was perhaps the least expected and arguably most consequential factor as regards the EU’s external border overall.
The spotlight once again returned to the Eastern Aegean in 2019, where migratory pressure rose in the spring and peaked in September, after which arrivals started falling chiefly due to weather conditions. In the second half of the year, arrivals on the Eastern Mediterranean sea route were the highest since the signing of the EU-Turkey Statement. Migrant smugglers managed to provide for the increased demand, in particular from Afghan and Syrian migrants coordinating simultaneous departures. Push factors throughout many key countries of origin and long-term host countries intensified as the year progressed. The pressure on Turkey’s land border with the EU subsided slightly in 2019. Cyprus experienced a significant increase of migrants crossing the green line and, in the latter half of the year, sporadically arriving by sea.
Irregular migration towards the EU along the two main migratory corridors through the Western Balkans – the GreekAlbanian corridor and the Serbian-centred corridor – continued throughout 2019. The western corridor into Albania reported mounting detections after the start of the Frontex joint operation in May. In the second half of the year the pressure from the region northwards focused on the EU borders with Serbia. Detections on this route grew by 158% compared to 2018.
After January 2019 departures from Morocco on the Western Mediterranean route decreased significantly (by 57% compared with 2018 as regards the sea route). Meanwhile departures from Morocco on the Western African route increased again slightly. Migration pressure on the Algerian corridor to the EU seasonally ticked up in the fall, as in previous years.
On the Central Mediterranean route, the Libyan corridor saw relatively little activity throughout 2019. Of the main nationalities departing from Libya, Eritreans saw the largest relative and absolute decrease. Detections on the other corridors that make up this migratory route also decreased compared with 2018. On the Eastern Land Border in 2019, illegal border-crossings from each of the EU’s eastern neighbors decreased. However, refusals of entry on the eastern green border on the other hand continued to rise. On the circular route from Albania southwards into the EU, detections decreased significantly. No significant migratory incidents took place in the Black Sea.
The overall demographics of migrants in 2019 show an increase in the share of vulnerable groups, including a slight growth in the share of women and children. Europol has received particularly worrying reports about the kidnapping of vulnerable irregular migrants, including unaccompanied minors, once they arrive in the EU.
Member States reported an increase in the detection of clandestine entries on both land and sea routes, the latter showing a stronger relative growth. As regards land borders, most clandestine entry attempts in 2019 were again in the Western Balkans region. According to the demographics of the migrants involved, those who are detected attempting to enter clandestinely (a risky modus operandi) are 97% male. Organized crime groups continue to focus on specific nationalities, as evidenced by the fact that 65% of all detected cases of clandestine entry attempts concern a single nationality (Afghan).
Secondary movements remained sizable in 2019 judging by, for instance, the rising number of detections of illegal stay and by the fact that applications for international protection also increased. Further evidence of the rise in secondary movements in 2019 is that the number of discoveries of such movements inside the EU/Schengen area increased in 2019 for the third year in a row. The reported figures grew by almost 38% compared with 2018 and reached the highest level since Frontex started collecting data on this indicator. In addition, high numbers of people smugglers continue to be detected inland. Secondary movements by sea also grew in 2019.
Beyond migration, the results of Frontex joint operations and EU joint action days as well as Member States’ data for 2019 shed some light on the sizable extent of cross-border crime. Smuggling of firearms, drugs, stolen vehicles and other illicit goods, as well as people smuggling and trafficking in human beings is happening every day on the EU’s external border. The complex character of cross-border crime threats necessitates a comprehensive operational response at the borders.
As in previous years, the number of effective returns in 2019 fell short of the return decisions issued by Member States. Around 139,000 migrants who were not granted refugee status or subsidiary protection were returned to their countries of origin, less than half (approximately 47%) the total number of return decisions issued in the same period. While the number of return decisions increased by around 5%, effective returns dropped 6% (both compared to 2018) to the lowest level since data has been collected on this indicator. This finding of course does not take into account the fact that many Third Country nationals receive multiple return decisions, and in many cases voluntary returns are not properly documented or reported. Southern Asian and Western Balkan citizens saw significant decreases (both in relative and absolute terms) in the number of effective returns, whereas there were considerably more returns to South America.
The U.K. has traditionally been and is likely to remain a prime destination country for migrants. Uncertainty about Brexit has in fact increased the resolve of migrants to get to the U.K. recently, resulting in an increase in migrant boats in the English Channel, clandestine entry attempts on trucks and even attempts to enter the U.K. aboard cruise ships. As the future relationship between the U.K. and the EU is negotiated during the transition period, the level of formalized cross-border cooperation will be a key determinant of the future challenges to EU integrated border management. Bilaterally good examples of cooperation already exist in the North Sea region.
The U.K. is not only a destination country for migrants, it also plays a significant role as a market for drugs and illegal firearms. Hence Brexit – with different border and customs controls – will influence the development of cross-border crime, too.
Regarding the impact of the global pandemic, Frontex says some regimes may be unable to maintain order and the outbreak of internal and inter-state conflict could occur, potentially creating new displaced populations or irregular migration, possibly also moving towards Europe. Many other scenarios are conceivable as a result of COVID-19. For instance, infected people from developing countries might seek medical care in Europe – regardless of the risk of infecting others in the chosen country of destination. Finally, Frontex says that until such a time that a viable, scalable vaccine is available, the virus will continue to encircle the globe, making it necessary to thoroughly reorientate border management towards health screening.