BARCELONA, Spain — Refugees and irregular migrants are pouring into Europe by land, air and sea at the highest levels since 2016, when the war in Syria triggered a refugee crisis.
Nearly 18,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea alone since Jan. 1 — a figure three times higher than the same period last year, according to the Italian Interior Ministry — and the number of water crossings toward the U.K. in January and February exceeded 5,600, up 82% from last year, according to Frontex, the border and coast guard agency of the European Union.
Frontex data shows that some 330,000 illegal crossings into Europe were detected in 2022, over land routes from the Balkans and via the Mediterranean and the English Channel. That number is 64% higher than in 2021. The rise in migrants traveling to Europe by boat has been accompanied by dramatic reports of deaths at sea. Less than three weeks ago, 79 migrants reportedly drowned when a boat broke apart off the coast of Italy.
“Last year, [European] countries faced unprecedented challenges at their external borders,” a spokesperson for Frontex told Yahoo News. “The steadily increasing number of irregular crossings demonstrates the need for strong and effective European Border and Coast Guard.”
With 4 million Ukrainians already receiving legal refuge in Europe, a million additional requests for asylum from Syrians, Afghans, Turks and other foreign nationals were lodged in 2022, according to the EU Agency for Asylum. While only 40% or less of asylum requests are typically approved, European countries are finding it difficult to remove those whose applications are denied, often because their home countries won’t cooperate with the EU to return them.
According to the EU’s European Commission: “Every year, over 300,000 foreign nationals are ordered to leave the EU because they have entered [illegally] or they are staying irregularly. However, only around 21% of them return back to their home country or to the country from which they traveled to the EU.”
Migration has long been a contentious issue in Europe, particularly when it comes to accepting asylum seekers, a task that now falls largely on Italy, Spain, Malta and Greece, which are typically the countries of entry. Even though European countries are obliged to consider applications for asylum and refugee status under such agreements as the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, governments have largely been focused on increasing border controls and repatriation while working with third-party countries, such as Libya and Morocco, to prevent asylum seekers from reaching European borders.
“You can only claim asylum if you arrive in Europe,” Luigi Scazzieri, senior research fellow on migration and security issues at the Center for European Reform, told Yahoo News. “If the thrust of Europe’s immigration policy becomes to keep people from arriving in the first place, then that right is being eroded.”
The situation is inciting panic from some in the U.K., where over 45,000 migrants crossed the English Channel illegally from France in small boats in 2022 — up from just 299 in 2018. U.K. Home Secretary Suella Braverman calls this trend “an invasion,” eliciting promises from the government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to “Stop the Boats.”
The British Parliament is now considering the Illegal Migration Bill, introduced by Braverman earlier this month, which would allow for irregular arrivals to be detained and repatriated, possibly to a third country, such as Rwanda. In a recent Daily Mail op-ed, Braverman wrote correctly that “there are 100 million people displaced around the world,” but went on to warn Britons that there are “likely billions more eager to come here if possible” — a wildly exaggerated prediction that drew backlash.
Even fellow conservative Gavin Barwell tweeted, “The Home Secretary should be utterly ashamed of herself for resorting to the language of extremists.”
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, has said it is “profoundly concerned” about Braverman’s proposal, which blocks attempts to seek asylum. Others, including European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, have questioned the bill’s legality. The fierce debate even spilled into sports last week, when soccer pundit Gary Lineker, a household name in Britain, tweeted that the bill is “immeasurably cruel” — prompting the BBC to suspend him from his popular show, “Match of the Day.” In response, supporters flooded Twitter with the hashtags #I’mWithGary and #BoycottBBC.
Meanwhile, the 27-country European Union faces a quagmire as it attempts to take unified action in cobbling together a new policy.
“Migration could be the crisis of Europe,” Blanca Garcés-Mascareñas, senior researcher on migration at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs, told Yahoo News. “Not because of the migrants, but because of our response to it, which puts into question Europe’s most basic principles.”
Garcés-Mascareñas pointed to Europe’s increasing construction of border fences, the illegal “pushbacks” of boats trying to reach EU lands by Greek coast guards and others, and the lack of transparency along the Polish-Belarusian border, where migrant deaths have been reported. She said she’s also concerned about the EU’s funding of violence-prone governments such as that of Libya, where the coast guard has received training and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to keep migrants from crossing toward Europe.
“There’s a lot of disagreement internally in the EU,” Andrew Geddes, director of the Migration Policy Center at the European University Institute in Italy, told Yahoo News. “So they’re putting a big focus on trying to get neighboring countries to become stronger in their controls.”
Geddes cited the expanding agreements between European countries and governments across North Africa, as well as Turkey, which include supplying coast guards with patrol boats and buses to transport captured migrants to detention centers.
“The EU is not really bothered if it's a nasty regime, but they’ll pay these governments a lot of money to try to get them to stop people coming in,” he said.
Libya in particular is accused of vast human rights abuses against detained migrants. And last summer, Moroccan border guards beat hundreds of migrants trying to climb a fence to the Spanish territory of Melilla, with dozens dying. Spain absolved the border agents involved and, in January, boasted that its cooperation with Morocco led to a 26% decrease in migrants arriving in Spain from Africa in 2022. That agreement includes millions of dollars in Spanish and EU funding for migration controls in Morocco, as well as increased Spanish investment in the country and support for Morocco in its long-standing political dispute with Algeria over the Western Sahara.
Another pillar of the EU response is to work more closely with countries of origin to convince them to accept migrants who have been deported, but that has proved challenging.
“The EU is obsessed with the return of failed asylum applicants, but the rates of return are very low,” said Geddes. “Many countries are reluctant to take them back.”
“Countries in Africa normally have very, very low rates of cooperation,” he told Yahoo News. “It can be politically toxic for them to do so — especially since migrants tend to send back money to their families.”
But Scazzieri said that convincing countries to accept those denied asylum is crucial to avoiding an “inhumane border policy.” If the EU had a more efficient system of returning asylum seekers to their home countries once their applications are denied, he said, “we wouldn't have the incentive to keep people out in the first place.”
There’s also been a recent debate over the role played by NGO rescue ships in the Mediterranean, which some officials say are only helping the smugglers bringing over migrants, effectively providing shuttle services for sinking boats. Italy, for example, has become notorious for refusing to allow some of them to dock.
But Geddes argues that the focus on smuggling gangs by some EU governments is misplaced, noting that research shows the real causes of irregular migration are “conflicts, lack of economic opportunity, population explosions and the effects of climate change.”
“The smugglers are the symptom of the problem, not the cause,” said Geddes.
Even with NGO rescue ships saving many from capsized boats, he noted that in the past eight years, over 20,000 migrants have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean. “The biggest migration issue now in Europe is the number of people who are dying at sea,” he said.
Geddes believes that much of what is shaping European border policy is based on misperceptions.
He said that “one of the biggest myths in the EU is that opinions are turning against migration,” an idea whipped up by hard-right parties including France’s National Rally and Spain’s Vox party as well as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. Geddes’s research, however, disputes that.
“Over the last 20 years, European attitudes to migration have actually become more favorable,” he said.