Illegal migration to EU lowest level in 5 years

The number of people illegally crossing into Europe dropped last year to its lowest level in five years — but there’s been a spike in the number reaching Spain, figures show.

An estimated 150,000 people entered the European Union through irregular crossings in 2018, border and coastguard agency Frontex said Friday. That represents the lowest total since 2013 and is 92% below the peak recorded during the migration crisis in 2015.

The drop was due to a dramatic fall in the number of migrants taking the central Mediterranean route from Libya, Algeria or Tunisia to Italy, Frontex said. A little over 23,000 irregular crossings were detected on this route for the year, an 80% decrease compared to 2017.

Italy’s hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini closed the country’s ports to migrant boats in June and the populist government has passed new anti-immigrant laws.

Meanwhile, the number of arrivals in Spain via the western Mediterranean route, leaving from Morocco, doubled last year for the second year in a row to 57,000.

Most of the migrants on this route originated from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, although the number of Moroccans has increased in recent months, Frontex said. Many also came from Guinea, Mali and Algeria.

Spain’s government has also allowed some ships carrying rescued migrants to dock in its ports after they were barred entry to Italy or Malta.

Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi nationals made up the largest number of migrants entering Europe by the eastern Mediterranean route last year, Frontex said, with the total rising by nearly a third to 56,000. This increase was mainly caused by a higher number of migrants crossing the land border between Turkey and Greece, it added, many of them Turkish nationals.

Immigration has become a hot-button issue across much of Europe, with many political parties promising to crack down on arrivals of migrants including refugees and asylum seekers.

In the United Kingdom, Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared a “major incident” after several dozen people reached British shores over the Christmas period after a hazardous journey by boat across the English Channel. The Royal Navy has been called in to help the UK Border Force deter further migrant crossings from France.

Italy’s so-called “security decree,” spearheaded by Salvini, came into force at the end of November. It abolished Italy’s “humanitarian protection” category for migrants who don’t meet the country’s strict asylum criteria or are waiting for a response to their application, and made it easier to expel them.

Under the new law, some migrants will lose their protected legal status and as a result will have to leave immigration centers, putting them into legal limbo — without the prospect of a job, healthcare assistance or social integration.

International rights groups have also highlighted the dangers faced by migrants who are returned to Libya after setting off from its coast for Italy. The EU has increasingly adopted a strategy of supporting the Libyan Coastguard to intercept migrants before they reach European shores.

Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations have come under pressure to stop Mediterranean rescue operations for migrants, many of whom are crammed onto unseaworthy boats by people traffickers. While some have left poverty-stricken homes in search of a better life, others are fleeing war, violence and persecution.

Women made up nearly a fifth of those detected making illegal border crossings into Europe last year, Frontex said. A similar proportion claimed to be under the age of 18, with nearly 4,000 unaccompanied minors reported.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) puts the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe last year at close to 142,000, most of whom made the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea.

The UN agency reported more than 2,200 migrants as missing or dead in the Mediterranean in 2018.