EU illegal migrants hit five-year low as Spain becomes main gateway Europe

Jessica Jones
A migrant is being rescued on January 4, 2019 with buoys and a rope, after he dived in the Mediterranean off Malta's coast - AFP

The European Union has recorded the lowest number of migrant arrivals in five years, following moves to curb crossings to Italy and Greece, new figures have shown.

But figures published by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) showed that while overall illegal migration to the EU has fallen to 150,000 a record number were now arriving in Spain.

“The number of irregular migrants using the Western Mediterranean route to reach Europe doubled for the second year in a row to 57,000, making it the most active migratory route in 2018,” the agency said in a statement.

It means Spain is the new gateway into Europe for migrants, overtaking Greece and Italy, with arrivals more than doubling from the 2017 total of 22,414. Some 769 people died attempting to reach the Spanish coast in 2018, many in barely seaworthy boats.

The pace shows little sign of slowing, with Spain rescuing 401 migrants from the Mediterranean in the first two days of 2019, even though overall migration figures have fallen significantly across Europe.

The EU received about half as many illegal migrants in 2018 than at the peak of the migration crisis in 2015, mainly due to a “dramatic fall in the number of migrants taking the Central Mediterranean route to Italy”, according to Frontex.

Italy, which registered a drop of 80 per cent, has taken a significantly harsher tone on migration under its populist government, sworn in at the beginning of June.

 Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini stands next to a sniper rifle during an event involving the state police SWAT team in Rome Credit: Reuters

In mid-June, Matteo Salvini, the country’s hardline Interior Minister refused entry to the migrant NGO rescue-ship Aquarius which had 629 illegal migrants on board.

The ship, also refused entry by Malta, was eventually allowed to dock in Valencia by Spain’s recently installed left-wing Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in one of his first big tests in the role.

“It is our obligation to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe,” Mr Sánchez said at the time.

Spain’s growing migrant numbers have drawn criticism at home, bolstering the far-right party Vox who won a surprise 12 seats in Andalusia’s recent elections after campaigning on an anti-immigrant platform.

On Saturday, Spanish right-wing newspaper ABC blamed the rise in migrant numbers on “the Sánchez effect”.