By Gabriela Baczynska
Warsaw (Reuters) – Irregular immigration to the EU from Western Africa rose more than ten times on the year in January, according to the bloc’s Frontex border agency, which expects overall arrivals to grow in 2024 and says halting the movement of people completely is impossible.
Frontex head Hans Leijtens spoke in his Warsaw office ahead of a trip by the EU chief executive and Spanish prime minister on Thursday to Mauritania, which has recently become a major point of departure for Europe.
Asked about a June EU-wide parliamentary election, in which migration is a top issue, the former Dutch border guard told Reuters that stopping irregular arrivals completely was not realistic.
“Migration is a global phenomenon. We need to manage migration because we can’t cope with unmanaged migration to Europe,” he said. “But a full stop – for me that seems very difficult, not to say impossible.”
Leijtens said orderly management of the bloc’s external borders was an important part of a broader “European portfolio” needed to face the challenge and stressed the need for EU development and other aid to foreign countries.
Last year, Frontex recorded 380,000 irregular border crossings, the highest since 2016. That marked another consecutive year of growth since the 2020 COVID pandemic lows, a trend Leijtens saw holding in 2024.
“I don’t think there will be a new trend in terms of the numbers going down,” he said, expecting more people from sub-Saharan Africa to seek to get to Europe, while the situation of Palestinians fleeing Gaza was uncertain.
“I don’t want to sound very alarmist but I think it’s an assumption that can be proven right.”
Those fleeing wars have the right to asylum in the EU, which has sheltered millions of Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion since 2022. Africans are mostly seen as labour migrants and the bloc wants to keep a tight lid on such arrivals.
Reuters saw the Frontex January data ahead of official publication. It showed the Atlantic route as the busiest irregular migration path into the EU, representing almost a half of the total nearly 14,000 arrivals last month.
Overall, irregular arrivals fell marginally year-on-year and by a third from December, the data showed, with winter months typically seeing low numbers.
The opposite is true for the summer. U.N. data shows more than 3,700 migrants died on the way to Europe last year, with some of the deadliest disasters taking place off Italy’s seaside town of Steccato di Cutro and Greece’s island of Pylos.
Anti-immigration rhetoric has grown across the EU since more than a million people – mostly Syrian refugees – arrived via the Mediterranean in 2015, catching the bloc unprepared.
Spain’s Canaries reported record arrivals last year, an example of continued challenges that play out prominently in election campaigns with promises to cut immigration.
Leijtens said increasing the number of effective returns of failed asylum-seekers was key to rebuilding Europeans’ trust.
“A credible return operation is very important to show both to the inhabitants of Europe, but also to the migrants. If you don’t need our protection … you will be returned.”
He welcomed the new EU Migration Pact – an overhaul of the bloc’s defunct migration and asylum rules – but stressed the 27 member states had more work to deliver on returns.
He said Frontex had no mandate to get involved in Albania under a new deal with Italy to build centres for migrants there – part of Rome’s efforts to reduce immigration.
Under Leijtens’ predecessor, who eventually resigned amid criticism, Frontex faced multiple accusations of involvement in human rights violations. After nearly a year on the job, Leijtens said he wanted Frontex to have human rights as “part of our DNA”.
“If there are violations, there will be consequences,” he said.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Additional reporting by Joan Faus, Alvise Armellini and Karolina Tagaris, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Nick Macfie)
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