The impact of the Arab Spring on illegal immigration was outlined by Gil Arias Fernandez, deputy director of the European border control agency Frontex, on 16 November in Athens with the publication of figures that highlighted an influx of North African migrants trying to enter the European Union.
Between 1 January and 30 September the number of illegal immigrants increased by 50% compared to the same period of the previous year: 112,844 immigrants were registered by national authorities compared to 76,697 last year.
“This jump is due to the mass inflow from North African countries, which was directed mainly at Italy and Malta in the first half of this year,” Fernandez said. March 2011 was the peak point when 20,000 people tried to cross EU borders, 17,000 of whom came from the Maghreb countries.
After this period the arrival of illegal immigrants dropped significantly, Frontex figures show. “Now, the so-called Mediterranean route is almost closed. This is because the authorities in Tunisia have improved border control and signed a readmission agreement with Italy,” said Fernandez.
The situation was also improved regarding illegal immigrants coming from Libya. Immigration that was used as a ‘weapon of war’ against EU by the Gaddafi regime decreased significantly when the National Transitional Government took over the control of Tripoli and other cities.
According to Frontex data, illegal immigrant inflow in Europe through the so-called Eastern-Mediterranean route - the border between Greece and Turkey - is almost of the same intensity as in 2010 and even with a relative decrease. Last year 39,000 illegal immigrants were registered while this year there were 2,000 fewer.
Shift of the immigration ‘pattern’
At the same time, Frontex outlined the shift of illegal immigration from the Maghreb countries with migrants choosing to cross the land border between Greece and Turkey, rather than the Spanish maritime borders. "From 1 January to 30 October, in Greece 1,700 Algerians, 1,000 Moroccans and 300 Tunisians were registered, while the number of immigrants from those countries in Spain was respectively 900, 200 and 1", Fernandez said.
“The peak was last October with 9,600 illegal crossings recorded from Turkey into Greece. Currently, the daily detentions in Greece are on average above 300 a day - a significant number.”
One of the reasons is the reduction in visa requirements in Turkey. Recently, Turkey has been building its own visa-free area, resembling the EU borderless Schengen space, with Ankara establishing a visa-free regime with countries such as Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia.
“In that way, they can travel easily to Istanbul whose airport is located very close to the border with Greece. They cross it with the help of the hundreds of trafficking networks operating in Turkey and at much lower prices”, Fernandez said.
The Frontex official also pointed out that cheap flights operating between many North African countries and Turkey, combined with the “liberal visa policy” towards many African countries, have added to this trend.
Frontex does not expect a drastic change in the large flow of illegal immigrants crossing the Greek-Turkish border. "The reasons are lack of reception centres in both countries, lack of readmission agreements with some countries of origin, the proximity of Istanbul to the border and the low prices of airline flights, the low visa regime to Turkey and the large number of trafficking networks operating in Turkey with Greek staff," said Fernandez.