European governments are seeing migrant numbers swell once again and they still have not settled on a coherent policy to cope with another influx.
Their dilemma was underlined Monday when the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that more than 50 migrants had drowned after their boat sank off the coast of Libya, 120 kilometers east of the capital Tripoli.
Federico Soda, the IOM's Libya mission chief, tweeted: “At least 57 people drowned today in the latest tragedy... Silence and inaction are inexcusable.” Survivors told the IOM 20 women and two children were among those who drowned.
The IOM repeated its call for EU governments to boost their own search and rescue missions and to halt their coordination with Libyan security forces for migrants to be intercepted and returned to Libya, one of the main gateways to Europe for war refugees and economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and the Mideast.
In the first half of 2021 Libyan coastguard picked up around 13,000 people. That exceeds the total number for the previous year, according to figures released by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Further north, British authorities say a total of 8,452 migrants have reached the country’s southern shores this year after making the crossing from France in dinghies. That’s more than the total number for 2020. On 19 July, 430 asylum-seekers crossed the English Channel, the highest number ever recorded for a single day.
Frustrated British government ministers unveiled earlier this month a new immigration bill making it a criminal offense for asylum-seekers to enter Britain without permission. Under the terms of the proposed legislation, anyone caught entering illegally for whatever reason could face a prison term of up to four years.
The move is designed to dissuade migrants crossing the English Channel illegally. People smugglers will also face much heavier jail terms with those found guilty facing life sentences, up from a current maximum of 14 years. The country’s interior minister, Priti Patel, said the legislation is intended to help fix what she described as Britain’s “broken asylum system.”
The British government also announced last week that it will pay France more than $70 million to help reduce the number of migrants crossing the English Channel by boat. As part of the Anglo-French deal, France will “be able to respond by posting more security forces further up the coast, installing and utilizing the latest surveillance equipment throughout northern France,” according to Britain’s interior ministry.
Overall asylum applications in Britain are down this year from 45,000 in 2019 to 35,000 last year, thanks, officials say, to global pandemic travel restrictions and tighter borders. Other European governments have also seen a dramatic fall in the numbers of asylum-seekers since the pandemic emerged. Italian authorities say they saw a 30 percent decrease in migrant numbers in 2020.
Post Lockdown Surge
But European governments are reporting upticks in recent months and are bracing for a bigger influx as borders start to reopen, mobility restrictions are dropped, and international travel becomes easier. Some analysts say that the economic and political consequences of the coronavirus pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa and the Mideast is already starting to drive up the numbers.
“Initially, the mobility restrictions imposed by most States drove down migration numbers,” according to Michael Spindelegger, director general of the Vienna-based International Center for Migration Policy Development, an international organization backed by 18 European states.
“But as soon as those restrictions were lifted figures went up again to pre-COVID levels,” he said in ICMPD’s annual report, released earlier this year.
Frontex, the EU’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, reported that the number of illegal border crossings at Europe’s external borders in the first six months of 2021 was 61,000, a 59 percent increase from a year ago. “This significant increase can be attributed to the fact that a year ago countries had put in place various COVID-related movement restrictions. The highest increase occurred on the Central Mediterranean route, where smuggling networks resumed their activities in Libya and Tunisia,” the agency reported in a press statement.
The numbers are still far from those at the height of the migration crisis in 2015-16 when more than a million migrants entered the EU and member states squabbled over a common migration strategy. Hungary and other Central European governments led by nationalist populists refused to participate in a migrant-burden sharing plan for asylum-seekers, who landed on the coasts of southern European states to be redistributed across the bloc, leaving Italy, Greece and Spain inundated.
Since then, agreement on a common approach has proven elusive as well. Instead, Brussels has relied largely on Turkey to try to block asylum-seekers from transiting illegally to Europe in return for $8 billion. The deal was renewed in May after the EU Commission announced it was making available an additional $700 million for so-called “humanitarian bridge funding” for 2021.
With migrant numbers rising once again, there have been renewed reports from NGOs of European border forces resorting to so-called “deterrence practices” involving thousands of migrants being forcibly pushed back over borders they’ve crossed. Some NGOs say the pushbacks have become more frequent and rougher since the pandemic emerged.
“Between January and April 2021 civil society organizations in 6 different countries collected testimonies of 2162 cases of pushbacks," according to the Danish Refugee Council. “The rights violations were recorded at different borders in Italy, Greece, Serbia, Bosnia-and-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Hungary. Over a third of pushbacks were accompanied by rights violations - denial of access to asylum procedure, physical abuse and assault, theft, extortion and destruction of property - at the hands of national border police and law enforcement officials,” the council said in a report.