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On 20 February Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, published its risk analysis for 2018. Its most eye-catching finding is the fact that the number of illegal border crossings detected in 2017 represents a 60% drop compared to 2016. However, Frontex is upfront about this representing a change of pattern, perhaps a return to a more ‘normal’ situation, but still:

“The overall pressure on Europe’s external borders remained relatively high, and the Western Mediterranean route saw the highest number of irregular migrants since Frontex began systematically collecting data in 2009.

Even a quick reading of the full document (PDF) reveals that mass-immigration is far from abating. Though Frontex seems to credit the EU-Turkey agreement with the drop in immigration by way of the Eastern Mediterranean Route, it nevertheless seems to suggest that the difference was made somewhere else:

The numbers in the first half of 2017 roughly mirrored those reported in 2016 at an elevated level, but in July, mostly due to internal developments in Libya, the numbers dropped suddenly to less than half the level of June.

Detections of illegal border-crossing at the EU’s external borders, 2017

It is, therefore, possible, that the drop in numbers is from a drop in the (temporary) ‘supply’ of immigrants from Syria. At the same time, however:

The number of migrants detected on the Western Mediterranean route hit a new record high in 2017, more than doubling the previous record of last year. While during much of the first half of the year the numbers were on a par with those reported during the last months of 2016, the flow reached a new level in June of the year. Domestic issues in Morocco, the main transit country for migrants heading to Spain, created an opening for more departures from Morocco’s western coast in particular, which starting from the second quarter of the year led to the use of high-capacity boats able to transport large numbers of migrants.

Corresponding to the changes in the migratory routes, the relative share of African nationals increased compared with 2016, driven by fast-growing numbers of migrants from Maghreb countries (notably Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians) in the latter part of the year. As a result, African nationals accounted for almost two-thirds of irregular migrants arriving at the shores of the EU.

Detections of illegal border-crossing, by main nationalities

The problem is compounded by the fact that those that make it into Europe, even if they are denied asylum or protective status (which, it seems, doesn’t happen often) are hardly ever made to leave:

Despite a steady number of return decisions compared with 2016, in 2017 Member States continued to struggle to effectively return those whose asylum application was rejected and who were not granted subsidiary protection status.

As the main reasons for non-return, Frontex only much later (5.7, page 25) writes that these are related to practical problems in identification, in obtaining necessary documentation from third-country authorities and apparent lack of oversight and capacity to enforce:

many decisions to return voluntarily do not materialise as the persons decide to stay illegally.

Return decisions in 2017: 279 215
Effective returns in 2017: 151 398

All these factors taken together, lead Frontex to predict that it is likely the pressure on the Southern area will continue, with an increased share of African migrants. Furthermore, it is possible that the share of vulnerable people will increase. Note that Frontex takes this to mean women, children and persons fleeing conflicts. It is further deemed possible that an increasing number of migrants will try to get into Europe by way of Turkey “also by using forged documents.” Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport is already an important hub for such attempts. Beyond these considerations, there is the underlying threat of terrorism. As Frontex puts it:

Conflict zones like Syria, Iraq and Libya have attracted thousands of foreign terrorist fighters, including EU citizens, dual-nationality holders and other third-country nationals. Given the loss of ground Islamist extremists suffered in a number of conflict zones, the threat has evolved into a more decentralised reality that increases the risk of terrorists’ movements. The risk that terrorists cross the border illegally remains. Moreover, document fraud – including the misuse of fraudulently obtained documents and/or genuine documents used by impostors – is to be increasingly expected.

Frontex concludes that the actual pressure on the external borders will remain high, with irregular migration by sea remaining the main modus operandi for illegal entry into the EU. During their work, border control is more and more confronted with cross-border crime. Not just human trafficking, but also smuggling and drugs trafficking, as well as issues regarding pollution and fisheries. There are signs too, of a growing symbiotic relationship between migration and local criminal structures. These structures are also increasingly associated with the terrorist threat. Lastly, the ability of Member States to return immigrants to, if not country of origin, at least to a transit country outside of the EU, will likely

continue [to have] substantial impact on the size and routes of irregular migration flows.