The increasingly deadly route to the EU

Migrants being intercepted by Italian coast guard in the Mediterranean. [Global Panorama/Flickr]

Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Spain are the main gateways to the European Union for illegal immigrants who sometimes pay with their lives in their search for a better life. 

Since the beginning of 2015, more than 20,000 illegal immigrants, mainly from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria have arrived in Italy via the Mediterranean Sea. That is more or less the same number as the previous year, at the end of which a record number of 170,100 immigrants arrived, against 42,925 in 2013 and 63,000 in 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring revolts.

Most were rescued at sea, often off of Libya’s coast and taken to ports on the southern Italian island of Sicily and the south of the Italian mainland. On Sunday, up to 400 illegal migrants died after their vessel capsized off the Libyan coast, according to some of the 144 survivors, who were brought to Italy. An estimated 330 immigrants died between February 9-10; 29 died of cold when they went through a storm, and some 300 others, when their three boats were shipwrecked.

Greek controls

Since Greece bolstered controls along its land border with Turkey, along the Evros River, illegal immigrants have turned to the maritime route between Turkey and the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, notably Lesbos, Samos, Kos and Chios. Thus, while 54,974 migrants were arrested along the land border in 2011, they numbered just 1,903 in 2014. In the east of the Aegean Sea, on the other hand, arrests at sea or on the coastline peaked in 2014 with 43,518 people stopped, against 11,447 in 2013.

>> Read: Illegal migrants arriving in Greece by sea triple in 2015

2015 began with a major increase in the number of Aegean crossings: 10,445 against 2,863 in the same period of 2014, according to the Greek port police. Unlike in Italy, the migrants set out on their journey on small boats holding 10 to fifty people, because Turkey is just dozens of nautical miles away from Greek territory.

Bulgarian walls and Spanish enclaves

The number of arrests for illegal immigration into Bulgaria was cut in half in 2014, with 6,023 people taken in for questioning against 11,618 in 2013. However, this comes at a time when the borders were made watertight, with Syrian migrants seeking to enter the country. No less than 38,502 people were prevented from entering the country, against 16,736 a year earlier, according to the authorities.

Bulgaria is planning to extend a 30 kilometre border wall, whose construction began in late 2013, by a further 82 kilometres. Illegal entries nevertheless rose in early 2015, with 561 arrests in January and February against 214 in the same period a year later.

>> Read: Rights groups: EU leaders don’t care about drowning immigrants

Some 7,472 illegal migrants entered Spain in 2013. The number of illegal immigrants who entered the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco increased by nearly half. The surge is in contrast with the 15 percent reduction in arrivals on the Spanish coast at the Canary and Balearic Islands and the Gibraltar Straits.

Arrivals on the coast reached 39,180 in 2006. The government attributed this development to the work of the police, in collaboration with the immigrants’ countries of origin and the countries they transit, as well as new technical means for controlling borders. Hundreds of immigrants have on several occasions stormed the fence separating Morocco from Ceuta and Melilla.


Since 1999, the EU has worked to create a Common European Asylum System and improve the current legislative framework.

New EU rules have now been agreed, setting out common high standards and stronger co-operation, to ensure that asylum seekers are treated equally in an open and fair system – wherever they apply.

But member states rejected the Commission's proposal that asylum seekers from the countries mostly affected from the arrival of migrants should be relocated in other EU countries.

The number of migrants entering the European Union illegally in 2014 almost tripled to 276,000, according to EU border control agency Frontex, nearly 220,000 of them arriving via the often dangerous Mediterranean crossing.

>> Read: Record number of migrants expected to drown in Mediterranean this year

The chaotic situation in Libya has sparked a rise in migrant boats setting out for Europe from its unpoliced ports carrying refugees fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

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