'Unprecedented pressure' as EU's borders face rising migrant numbers

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By Alice Tidey
Migrants walk on the railway tracks near a border line between Serbia and Hungary, near village of Horgos, Serbia, Oct. 20, 2022.
Migrants walk on the railway tracks near a border line between Serbia and Hungary, near village of Horgos, Serbia, Oct. 20, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

European Union and Schengen countries faced "unprecedented pressure" at their external borders in 2022, with the number of detected irregular border crossings reaching a level not seen since 2016, new figures show.

Around 330,000 irregular border crossings were detected last year which amounts to a year-on-year jump of 64%, according to data released on Friday by Frontex.

The EU's external border agency said in a statement that this was the second year in a row with "a steep rise" in the number of irregular entries following a pandemic-induced low in 2020.

The Western Balkan route was the most used, accounting for 45% of all irregular entries (145,600) into the bloc following a year-on-year rise of 136%. 

Citizens of Syria, Afghanistan and Türkiye accounted for the largest number of detections although nationalities that previously didn't use that route, such as Tunisians, Indians and Burundis, were also reported.

The Central Mediterranean route was the second most used route, with 102,529 irregular entries detected, up 51% of 2021.

Some routes however saw a decrease. Crossings via the Westen African route (15,462), the Western Mediterranean (14,582), and the Eastern Land Border (6,127) respectively dropped by 31%, 21% and 25%. 

"Last year, EU and Schengen-associated countries faced unprecedented challenges at their external borders. These have ranged from the state-organised migration perpetrated by Belarus from 2021 onward to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022," Frontex said in its statement.

"The later caused record numbers of refugees arriving in the European Union. These events, along with the steadily increasing number of irregular crossings, demonstrate the need for strong and effective European Border and Coast Guard, with Frontex as strong supporter of Member States," it added.

A new pact on migration and asylum, proposed by the Euroepan Commission in September 2020 is still being negotiated between the 27 EU countries.

Among the main proposals of the new pact is a mechanism of "voluntary and temporary" solidarity that would get rid of mandatory relocation quotas, seen by many capitals as politically divisive.

'Major progress" was made over the summer, the Commission said, but Sweden, which assumed the EU Council rotating presidency on 1 January, is unlikely to boost efforts to reach consensus over the next six months. Its new right-wing government is supported by the anti-immigration, far-right Sweden Democrats.  

The surge in arrivals experienced this year has however led the Commission to unveil so-called action plans for specific routes including via the Central Mediterranean and the Western Balkans.

The plan for the Western Balkans route would see Frontex staff deployed at non-EU borders for the first time. It also includes better visa alignment between the Western Balkan nations and the EU to ensure that foreign nationals who travel to the Western Balkans visa-free do not then cross into the EU.

Most Western Balkan countries aspire to join the EU and currently have visa-free arrangements with the bloc.

Serbia, for instance, ended visa-free travel with Tunisia and Burundi late last year following pressure from the EU and has signalled it will do the same with other countries including India.