In 2016, a drop in detections reported at the external borders with Turkey and Western Balkan countries led to an over all decrease in detections of illegal border-crossing at EU level. However, with over half a million detections (511 371), the figure is still significantly higher than any yearly total between 2010 (104 060) and 2014 (282 933). This means that the pressure on the external borders of the EU remained exceptionally high in 2016.
The migratory pressure at the EU’s external borders with Turkey has been easing since October 2015. An important factor in this regard is the EU-Turkey statement, which came into force in March 2016, in which Turkey agreed to secure its maritime and land borders and accept the return of irregular migrants from Greece. The statement has largely removed the incentive for migrants to take irregular migration routes to Greece and has undermined the business model of people-smuggling networks. Several measures introduced to prevent illegal border-crossing along the Western Balkan route have also discouraged many irregular migrants from making the dangerous sea crossing to the Greek Eastern Aegean Islands.
Nevertheless, Greek Hotspots saw several riots last year resulting in injuries and material damage. Similar security problems and overcrowding in Bulgaria reflected persistent tensions in reception facilities and the precarious situation of migrants and refugees.
Never before had detections been so high in the Central Mediterranean area, with 181 459 in 2016, which is 18% more than in 2015. For the third consecutive year, detections in the Central Mediterranean Sea have exceeded 100 000. At the same time, IOM data show that the number of deaths and missing persons – a rough estimate due to the absence of passenger lists and the few bodies actually recovered – increased from 3 175 in 2015 to over 4 500 in 2016. The increase in fatalities occurred despite enhanced operational efforts and the fact that most rescue operations took place close to, or sometimes within, Libyan territorial waters.
A staggering 96% of newly arrived migrants interviewed in the Central Mediterranean region stated that they had used the services of smuggling networks to illegally enter the EU. This suggests that irregular migration via Libya is entirely dependent on the services of the smuggling networks. Therefore, any activity that would disrupt or deter these groups could significantly curb the flow of irregular migrants into the EU.
The increasing number of vulnerable persons moving through the Central Mediterranean, in particular Nigerian women, makes it very clear that effective detection of people trafficked for sexual exploitation, forced labour and other purposes remains a major challenge for border authorities.
The establishment of Hotspots in southern Italy helped to considerably improve the registration of new arrivals. However, many arriving migrants were also disembarked outside Hotspot areas, which undermined the uniform application of registration rules. Moreover, after having been registered in the Hotspots, many migrants simply left the reception centres without notification or proper documentation. It should be stressed that movement of people without proper documentation within the EU carries serious implications for internal security.
As in the case of the Central Mediterranean, never before had detections on the Western Mediterranean route been as high as in 2016, with more than 10 000 detections. This is 46% more than in 2015 on the same route, and 21% more than in 2011, the previous recordbreaking year. As in the Central Mediterranean, most migrants were from Africa, which indicates the growing pressure of illegal immigration from this continent towards the EU.
In terms of nationalities, for the fourth consecutive year, people claiming to be Syrian nationals (17% of total EU) represented the highest share of irregular migrants entering the EU in 2016. They were followed by Afghans (11%), who accounted for the second largest number of illegal border-crossings. The number of Iraqis was also notable representing more than 6% of detections.
Coinciding with an increase in the Central Mediterranean and Western Mediterranean, detections of African migrants reached a record high of over 170 000 (+22% over 2015), compared with the average of about 40 000 detections between 2009 and 2013. This influx reveals a steady increase in migration pressure from the African continent and, in particular, from West Africa. Indeed, most of the growth over 2015 was due to a higher number of detections of Nigerians (+71%), Guineans, Ivorians and Gambians. Altogether in 2016, West Africans accounted for more than 100 000 detections, a total roughly comparable with the number of migrants from the Middle East reported for illegally crossing the border from Turkey.
In 2016, more than 7 000 people were detected with fraudulent documents at the EU’s external borders. This represents a decrease of about 15% compared with the previous year. However, as in 2015, the number of people detected travel ling with fraudulent documents within the EU proved higher than at the external borders (almost 11 000 reported in 2016). In addition to the smuggling of migrants, document fraud emerged as a key criminal activity linked to the migration crisis. Fraudulent documents can be in fact used or reused for many other criminal activities. This will continue to represent a substantial threat to the security of the EU in 2017.
Within the Schengen free-movement area, several EU Member States and Schengen Associated Countries (Germany, Austria, France, Sweden, Denmark and Norway) introduced temporary controls at specific border sections. These controls have been extended until the first months of 2017 amid continued concerns about managing spontaneous flows.
Even though Turkey accepted a number of irregular migrants from Greece and a greater number of failed asylum applicants were returned to Western Balkan countries, the overall number of effective returns at EU level remained relatively stable in relation to 2015, with 176 223 effective returns reported in 2016 (+0.6%).
With regard to returns, the main is sue continued to be linked to the difficulties in obtaining travel documents from countries of origin in time. This was particularly the case for some West African countries (e.g. Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Senegal) that have a limited consular presence in the EU. These countries also showed the largest discrepancies between the number of their citizens detected for illegal border-crossing (113 935) and those effectively returned (6 497) in 2016.Overall, there is an underlying threat of terrorism-related travel movements. This is mainly due to the fact that the Syrian conflict has attracted thousands of foreign fighters, including EU citizens, dual-nationality holders and third-country nationals. At the beginning of 2017, the main jihadist organisations (e.g. Daesh) have experienced considerable military setbacks in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Since Daesh’s military demise is now increasingly likely on the three theatres, it might encourage some foreign fighters to return to their home countries (among others EU Member States). As some of them may pose a threat to internal security, the role of border authorities in monitoring their cross-border movements will be increasingly important.