An overloaded boat of refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe, as seen from the deck of an Italian Coastguard ship, in the Mediterranean Sea. (UNHCR/Alfredo D’Amato)

Migrants Die at Sea as Illegal Border Crossings Start to Pick Up Around Europe

In the first seven months of this year, the number of illegal border crossings at Europe’s external borders fell by 15% from a year ago to 47,250*.

After reaching record lows in April due to restrictions related to COVID-19, the number of irregular migrants detected at Europe’s external borders has been rising over the last three months, according to new data from Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

In July, the number of illegal border crossings rose by nearly a third from the previous month to 8,650. The Central and Western Mediterranean regions saw twice as many arrivals as in June, reaching 4,650, in large part due to a significant rise in the number of irregular migrants departing from Tunisia during July.

In the first seven months of this year, the total number of illegal crossings on the Central Mediterranean route rose to 13,150, up 155% from the very low figures a year ago. As well as Tunisians, Bangladeshis also made up a large portion of the detections in the region.

There were around 1,500 detections of illegal border crossings in the Western Mediterranean in July, 84% more than in the previous month. Despite this, the total for the first seven months of 2020, was less than half the figure from the same period in the previous year at 6,100.

The number of Algerians, who accounted for one out of every two detections on the Western Mediterranean route this year, was seven times the figure from a year ago. Moroccans were the second most represented nationality on this route.

There were some 400 detections of illegal crossings reported in July on the Eastern Mediterranean route. This is 44% lower than the previous month, although the July total is expected to rise as final figures are calculated. Nevertheless, recent monthly totals in this region are well below the levels from a year ago. In the first seven months of 2020, the total number of detections using the Eastern Mediterranean route halved to around 12,900. Nationals of Afghanistan and Syria accounted for the largest number of detected migrants.

There were 2,550 detections of illegal border crossings on the Western Balkan route last month, 40% fewer than in June. Overall, the number of migrants crossing the Western Balkans has increased this year due to higher numbers of people who had originally landed in Greece and the easing of COVID measures by the national authorities in the region.

In the January-July period, almost 11,300 migrants were detected at EU’s border in the region, 80% more than in the first seven months of 2019. Two of every three migrants detected in the region so far this year were Syrian, while Afghans accounted for 17% of the border crossings.

Frontex infographic depicting the illegal crossings.

Meanwhile, the United Nations (UN) has called for search and rescue operations to be stepped up in the Central Mediterranean, in the wake of the tragic shipwreck that claimed the lives of 45 migrants and refugees, including five children. 

The boat, carrying over 80 people sank on August 17 after its engine exploded off the coast of Zwara, in western Libya. Some 37 survivors were rescued by local fishermen and detained after disembarking. 

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on August 20 that more than 300 migrants and refugees have perished trying to cross the sea from Libya to Europe this year, but the actual number of fatalities could be much higher.  

The agencies are calling for a review of countries’ approach to the situation, underscoring an “urgent need” to strengthen the current search and rescue capacity to respond to distress calls. 

“We fear that without an urgent increase in search and rescue capacity, is a risk of another disaster similar to incidents that saw large loss of life on the Central Mediterranean prior to the launch of Mare Nostrum”, they said. Mare Nostrum was an Italian operation that contributed to the rescue of around 150,000 refugees and migrants. It was launched in October 2013 and finished a year later. 

The two UN agencies also voiced concerns over delays in rescue and disembarkation, and called on countries to swiftly respond to distress calls and provide a predictable port of safety to people rescued at sea. 

“Where commercial vessels are the nearest boat capable of carrying out a rescue, they should be promptly provided with a safe port for disembarking the rescued passengers,” the agencies said, adding that that the vessels should not be instructed to return people to Libya, where they are at risk of the ongoing conflict, severe human rights violations, and arbitrary detention. 

They also called for lifting legal and logistical restrictions on NGO vessels that have played a crucial role in saving lives at sea amid a sharp reduction in European state-led efforts. 

UNHCR and IOM also urged Libyan authorities to act firmly against smugglers and traffickers preying on vulnerable migrants and refugees. 

“This should include disrupting and ending smuggling rings led by criminal groups to prevent further exploitation and abuse,” they said.

*The figure includes other less active migratory routes not mentioned here. The final figures may differ due to delayed reporting. The preliminary data presented in this statement refer to the number of detections of irregular border-crossing at the external borders of the European Union. The same person may attempt to cross the border several times in different locations at the external border.

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Kylie Bielby has more than 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. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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