In 2016, migration pressure at Europe’s external borders remained high with the detection of over half a million illegal border-crossings. Frontex estimates that this figure corresponds to about 382 000 migrants coming to Europe from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Compared to the 1.8 million illegal border-crossings reported in 2015, 2016 saw a significant decrease, but this figure is still higher than any annual figure for arrivals between 2010 (104 060) and 2014 (282 933).
Most migrants arrived in Italy and Greece, with each country reporting roughly 180 000 new arrivals. While arrivals in the Central Mediterranean steadily grew throughout the year, in Greece more than 80% migrants arrived between January and March. The subsequent drop in arrivals was a consequence of both the EU-Turkey statement that came into effect on 18 March, which permitted the readmission of migrants to Turkey, and the closure of the Western Balkan route due to stricter management of the FYROM border.
While migration pressure at the Greek–Turkish border significantly decreased following the EU-Turkey statement, Italy registered a 17% increase in 2016 in comparison with the previous year. Consequently, arrivals via the Central Mediterranean route exceeded 150 000 for the third year in a row. Similar to previous years, irregular migration via Libya was almost entirely dependent on people smuggling networks. Most migrants heading for Italy departed from Libya aboard overcrowded and unseaworthy rubber dinghies and were subsequently rescued by coast guard, Frontex, military, commercial or NGO vessels close to the Libyan shore. Tragically, despite around-the-clock rescue efforts, thousands of migrants lost their lives at sea while attempting to cross to Europe.
Last year, a record number of arrivals was also reported on the Western Mediterranean route, where 10 000 migrants were detected. Most migrants on this route came from Sub-Saharan and North African countries.
For the fourth consecutive year in 2016, persons claiming to be Syrian nationals represented the highest share of migrants illegally entering the EU (17% of total EU). As in 2015, most Syrians used the Eastern Mediterranean route but their numbers decreased by more than 80%, with 84 500 detections in 2016.
Coinciding with the increase in the Central and Western Mediterranean, the detection of African migrants reached a record high of more than 170 000, compared with an average of about 40 000 between 2009 and 2013. This surge reveals a steady increase in irregular migration from the African continent, and in particular from West Africa.
The number of returns of non-EU citizens to their country of origin reached 176 000, roughly in line with 2015. The reason for this was mainly linked to the difficulties faced by national authorities in obtaining travel documents for the returnees. In 2016, Frontex coordinated the return of 10 700 non-EU nationals on 232 return flights. This is a significant rise from the previous year, when 3 565 non-EU nationals were returned on 66 joint return flights.
The Frontex report concludes that close cooperation between border guards, police and customs officials is essential to ensure border security and to tackling a range of criminal activities at Europe’s external borders. As the geopolitical situation around Europe remains volatile, border control measures will require a combination of rapid and efficient coast guard actions, cooperation with countries of transit and origin of migrants and the more effective returns of migrants who do not have a right to remain in the EU.