Frontex Risk Analysis 2023/2024 discusses challenges at EU external borders – Part 1

On September 4th Frontex published its keenly awaited (at least by some of us) annual Risk Analysis Report for 2023/2024, providing an overview of the challenges at the European Union’s external borders. The report is too large to be included in full in a single issue of BSR, so over the next two issues we will republish key sections of the report for our global audience.

Executive Summary
Turbulent outlook calls for effective deployment of Standing Corps

As the war in Ukraine rages on and in the face of hostility from the Russian and Belarusian regimes as well as ambivalence from Asian powers and much of the global south, European integrated border management (EIBM) may face an even more turbulent, hostile geopolitical environment than in 2022.

It is assessed as highly likely that disruptions to global security, food and energy supplies, together with macroeconomic factors in key countries of origin of irregular migration and cross-border crime will put the European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG) to the test.

This risk analysis gives renewed urgency to the Multiannual Strategic Policy for EIBM and to empower the EBCG Standing Corps to fulfil its full potential as the adaptive European capacity to respond to high and critical risks for EIBM such as crisis situations that it was conceived to be. With somewhat less certainty but with potentially greater magnitude and impact, geopolitical instability in countries to the east and south of Europe may also result in large-scale refugee outflows.
Despite the positive response to Ukrainian refugees in 2022, additional outflows could pose a severe challenge to the EU’s capacity to host these populations and strain local people’s willingness to help. More refugees could also funnel further business to people smugglers, whose operations already expanded in 2022.

Rising cross-border crime and migrant smuggling require new remedies
The marked increase in detected irregular border-crossings in 2022 (+66% visà-vis 2021 to almost 332 000) coincides with an increase in facilitated movements, which is evidenced by a new record in the number of people smugglers detected (over 15 000 people smugglers were reported to Frontex in 2022).

Indeed Europol finds that “the market for migrant smuggling services to and within the EU is reaching new heights, fuelled by emerging and deepening crises, most notably economic recessions, environmental emergencies caused by climate change, as well as conflicts and demographic pressure in many origin countries”.
Beside the strengthened joint efforts to dismantle the business of people smugglers, other policies and approaches need to be devised to meaningfully curb irregular migration. The last year has seen upswings in many areas of cross-border crime in a return to business-as-usual following the COVID-19 pandemic. In the short term, crime levels on the EU’s external borders will likely continue to follow demand in established and emerging illicit markets.

Criminal networks will adjust to new conditions and benefit from opportunities to smuggle various illicit or scarce commodities, including drugs. Adjustment of trafficking routes for drugs and firearms, online trade, encrypted communication, and a business-like approach will characterise cross-border crime, further increasing the risk of smuggling of illicit goods with containerised and bulk cargo at sea, land and air borders. In the face of these threats, however, Frontex’s growing Standing Corps is increasingly well-positioned to tackle both rising cross-border crime and migrant smuggling.

Return decisions and effective returns continue to diverge
2022 saw no improvement in the gap between return decisions and effective returns of third-country nationals. In 1 Europol (2023), Criminal networks in migrant smuggling, Europol Spotlight Report series, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg fact, while return decisions further increased (+9% compared with 2021), in the latest statistics, effective returns were almost unchanged (+1.6%), also due to the drop-off in returns to Ukraine.

This lacklustre performance carries serious implications for the effectiveness of Schengen and cooperation with third countries and reinforces the imperative for a common EU system for returns. The Policy Document Towards an Operational Strategy for More Effective Returns issued in January 2023 charts the way forward in this regard, recommending the digitalisation of return management and the improvement of data and statistical evidence on return.

Meanwhile, Frontex continues to strengthen its return activities (in 2022, 24 850 people were returned with Frontex’s support, up from 18 300 in 2021) also through dedicated Action Plans, which include tailored deployment of Standing Corps return profiles to work on the effectiveness of both voluntary and nonvoluntary return and reintegration.

With increasing mobility, old border-check vulnerabilities may resurface
Cross-border mobility has now shaken off the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) forecasts that air passenger demand will rapidly recover to pre-pandemic levels2 and that 2019 figures will be exceeded by the end of 2023. This may lead to the recurrence of certain capacity shortfalls in European border management.

The first published sections for this issue look at irregular migration.

Irregular migration at the sea borders
Illegal border-crossings at the blue borders increased by 31% in 2022 compared with 2021. With 147 982 detections reported by Member States, the 2022 figure was also considerably higher (+39%) than the pre-pandemic 2019 figure and the highest for this border type since 2017. Whilst well-established corridors such as the Libyan and Tunisian corridors in the Central Mediterranean accounted for the strongest absolute increases, emerging corridors from Lebanon and Syria towards the Central Mediterranean saw incomparably higher relative increases, offering alternative routes to, in particular, Syrian migrants.

Altogether, the Central Mediterranean, with 105,561 IBC (71% of all detections on the sea borders), topped the maritime migratory routes, followed by the Western African route (15,463), the sea corridors of the Eastern Mediterranean (13 78) and the Western Mediterranean sea route (13,257).

Overall migratory pressure on the sea borders is, however, inadequately captured by these figures. Pressure from North Africa, for instance, is much higher than these figures suggest, as significant numbers of preventions of exit (this term describes chiefly the interceptions of vessels by third-country authorities before leaving territorial waters) by these countries were also recorded. UNHCR reported that the Libyan Coast Guard prevented the departure of 24 788 migrants in 2022, which is slightly below the level reported in 2021. In the Eastern Aegean, the Turkish Coast Guard prevented the departure and smuggling of almost 50 000 irregular migrants, more than double the 2021 figure.

The number of vulnerable people was on the rise at the sea border: in 2022, 20 276 minors, 14 073 of them unaccompanied, were recorded in the Central Mediterranean, the highest number on record in recent years. First among the unaccompanied minors were Egyptians (4 356 in 2022), whose figure has seen an increase from 40 recorded in 2019. At the same time there has been an overall increase in Egyptians (21 336 in 2022), propelling the nationality to the most represented one on this route. A proliferation of new modi operandi was also a marked development in 2022.

In particular the proliferation of more seaworthy vessels such as fishing boats in the Central Mediterranean suggests that maritime migratory routes may be less dependent on seasonality than in the past. On the corridor from Tunisia, the growing use of makeshift metal boats has been instrumental in driving up figures since the autumn. In arguably one of the most important developments of 2022, the Libyan corridor saw rising numbers of departures of fishing vessels from the east of the country. Fuelled by charter flights to Benghazi, nationalities such as Bangladeshis, Syrians and to a lesser extent Pakistanis were prominent on this corridor, joined by migrants from neighbouring Egypt as well as other nationalities as the year progressed.

In the summer of 2022, people smugglers initiated large numbers of departures of groups of jet skis in the Strait of Gibraltar. Like the increased use of taxi boats, this modus operandi enables undetected landings, a noteworthy challenge to border management.

The humanitarian impact of what continues to be a profitable business opportunity for people smugglers in the Mediterranean continues to be devastating: According to IOM, 2406 migrants were recorded as missing in the Mediterranean in 2022, 17% more than in 2021 (2 062). However, given the increase in departures from North Africa and the Middle East (recorded arrivals plus preventions by respective authorities) the 2022 figure may be proportionally smaller.

Looking forward, developments in a range of countries of origin and transit, driven by global macroeconomic drivers (chiefly persistent inflation and global recession) will negatively impact the socioeconomic conditions of large populations and foreshadow increasing migratory flows to Europe. These flows, in cases where migratory routes are not pre-defined by geography and narrowly established migratory routes, could have a larger impact on sea borders given the proliferation of technical obstacles on land borders. According to a briefing by the European Parliament Research Service of October 2022, between 2014 and 2022, the aggregate length of border fences on the EU’s external borders and within the EU/Schengen area grew from 315 km to 2 048 km, with a substantial hike in 2022.

Another important trend is the use of more seaworthy (but not safer) vessels such as fishing boats. According to Frontex estimates, they have been very profitable for smugglers, so will likely continue to be used as long as they are available for purchase in the Mediterranean basin. Seasonality is therefore likely to have less impact on sea crossings than previously.

For 2023/2024 it is likely that the Eastern Mediterranean and Central Mediterranean route will see more migratory activity and a higher proportion of the overall migratory flows to the external borders. Worsening socioeconomic push factors in major countries of origin and transit as well as host countries of refugees and migrants in the Middle East and South Asia, alongside the dire humanitarian situation and political instability in some of the countries belonging to these regions will likely lead to flows to Europe from the East.

Part of this phenomenon will likely be the increasing use of the corridors from Türkiye, Lebanon and Syria towards the Central Mediterranean, marking a further blurring between the Eastern and Central Mediterranean routes. This will be exacerbated by increasing air connections between the two geographical areas, which have already resulted in migrants such as Syrians – traditionally seen only in the Eastern Mediterranean – being registered on routes from Libya. Joining the northward flows from Libya and Tunisia will be rising numbers of North African migrants and from various sub-Saharan countries, whose countries face sobering economic, security, human rights and climate forecasts for 2023/2024. Factors mitigating the flows of irregular migrants are increased cooperation across the Mediterranean and renewed bilateral and multilateral efforts to enable third-country authorities to prevent migrant smuggling on their territory.

Irregular migration at the land borders
With an increase of 110% in detections vis-à-vis 2021, the detections on entry reported by Member States at land borders in 2022 (183 571) would indicate a much higher proportionate increase in migration pressure as compared to the sea borders (+31%). However, repeat IBCs significantly bumped up the numbers on the Western Balkans land routes. As a result, comparing the number of IBCs to previous periods may be misleading as to the number of migrants concerned. However, even if one excludes this route from the comparison, migratory pressure at land borders is still the highest it has been since 2016, though the increase compared to 2021 is less accentuated. An outsized share of 135 292 illegal border crossings were reported on the borders to Serbia (74% of all crossings at land borders). Of note, three nationalities (Syrian, followed at a distance by Afghans and nationals of Türkiye) accounted for 68% of reported illegal border-crossings at land borders.
In a major development at the land borders in 2022, on the Western Balkan route, nationalities hitherto rarely seen on this route were reported, such as Tunisians, Indians and Burundians. These nationalities did not require a visa in some Western Balkan countries. This visa freedom was increasingly exploited in 2022. The reintroduction of visas for Burundians and Tunisians in some Western Balkan countries came fairly late in the year (other key countries of origin followed later) but had a measurable effect towards the very end of 2022.

Numerous secondary movements of migrants in Central Europe were among the knock-on effects of outflows from the Western Balkans in 2022. On the Eastern land borders, a quarter fewer IBCs were recorded (6 373 against 8 160 in 2021). The focus of the reported cases shifted significantly compared to 2021, with fewer counted on the borders with Belarus and more on those with Ukraine. The Belarusian instrumentalization of migration continued in 2022, however with less intensity.

Meanwhile, at the borders to Ukraine 5 224 illegal border-crossings were registered, peaking in March 2022. The concerned individuals were almost all Ukrainian men of military age.

Going forward, detections of illegal border-crossings at the land borders in 2023/2024 could fall somewhat in comparison to the previous period as on the one hand land borders at the European external borders are increasingly covered by robust technical obstacles alongside increased surveillance and deployments of border guards (including Frontex deployments within Joint Operation Terra). On the other hand, there are signs that the Western Balkans, which account for the above-mentioned outsized share thereof, may see a moderate decrease in pressure as visa policy alignment in the region works to decrease numbers of select nationalities and on account of fewer secondary movements transiting the region after having arrived first on the Eastern Mediterranean route.

Developments at the land borders to the Western Balkans could once again hold surprises for European border management as visa policies change and loopholes are exploited. Steps in the direction of visa policy alignment have shown promising results. At the same time, it has also been a question of border guard capacity at the major airports to issue refusals of entry to those who clearly have not arrived with forthright reasons for their stay. That aside, there is a chance that migrants reroute to other countries in the Western Balkans, where some of the concerned nationalities still remain visa free. In particular, the uptick of Russian nationals detected at borders in the region towards the very end of 2022 could be indicative of further flows, especially if further waves of mobilisation lead to additional outflows of Russians.

Further factors that may come to have an impact in this complex region (falling into the low likelihood, high impact category) are increasing signs of instability amidst the resurfacing of dormant ethnic tensions.

The war in Ukraine and increasing tensions with Russia and Belarus hold a host of scenarios that could at short notice have an immense effect on the EU land borders, be they due to refugee outflows (orderly via border-crossing points or via the green border) or men fleeing further mobilisation. The stability in many of the countries across the Eastern Land Borders has been drawn into question since the invasion of Ukraine, including in the aggressor country itself.

Furthermore, the likelihood of the use of irregular migration as a pressure tool may increase given the increasingly tense geopolitical tensions to in particular the European Union’s east. While Ukraine has proven itself to be impressively resilient in the face of persistent attacks on the civilian infrastructure, hazards such as nuclear contamination caused by intentional or accidental targeting of nuclear power plants for instance may see different results. Solid contingency planning of the Member States and the EBCG as a whole is hence crucial for mitigating the potential impact at the land borders.

Additionally, robust preparedness may also serve as a pre-empting factor that the planners of instrumentalisation of migration or other activities of hybrid nature need to take into account.

Clandestine entry
In 2022, a total of 1 680 clandestine entry attempts were reported by Member States – a substantial fall of 36% compared with 2021. This decrease occurred both at land and sea border-crossing points (BCPs), with a steeper relative decrease at sea borders. As one would expect, this modus operandi is particularly used at BCPs handling large vehicle, cargo or train traffic, which tends to increase the chances that clandestine entries will go unnoticed. The fall in reported cases in 2022 was largely due to fewer reported cases at BCPs with the Western Balkan countries. Somewhat more cases were reported from the land borders with Türkiye, Moldova and Ukraine.

Data for clandestine entry depend on the detection rate and the intensity of border surveillance measures/border checks and controls. Especially when considered in contrast to the increased detections at the green borders, the fall in cases seems counterintuitive. Perhaps with the increase in cross-border traffic after the COVID-19 pandemic a larger share of clandestine entries simply went undetected in 2022, or increasingly sophisticated methods to hide migrants resulted in successful border-crossings. These are possibilities that cannot be ruled out and that would cause the number of cases detected to not reflect the true extent of the phenomenon.

Almost six out of ten cases of reported clandestine entry at the external land borders were reported from only four border-crossing points, all of them to the Western Balkans. This geographical focus may be considered to some extent an indicator of the continued resolve of the migrants in the region and the level of border security, also expressed by the repeat attempts counted among illegal border-crossings on the region’s green borders.

Clandestine entry continues to be a high-risk modus operandi associated with a particular migrant profile. It tends to be used by males (94% in 2022), who are predominantly young (at least 59% below the age of 34 in 2022). For the last few years, Afghan migrants have been by a large margin the most numerous among those detected for clandestine entry at the external borders and in 2022, 33% of all cases were Afghan migrants. Together with the second-most reported nationality (Syrians with 15%), and the third most reported nationality (Turks with 10%), they accounted for more than 58%.

If interceptions reported via the Frontex Risk Analysis Network are an adequate representation of the most common modi operandi at the external borders (an admittedly strong assumption), then hiding in and under lorries is the most typical means of clandestine entry at land borders (at least 66% of all cases reported), while hiding on ferries is the most reported modus operandi at sea borders.

Successful clandestine entry enables unknown numbers of potentially high-risk individuals to enter the EU undetected. It also enables unimpeded secondary movements through the area of free movement (and hence enables the movements of high-risk individuals such as terrorists or foreign agents/ saboteurs). The increasing sophistication of attempts to hide migrants in vehicles creates an operational imperative to employ expensive and time-consuming ways to mitigate the threat, impeding external borders by slowing down bona fide traffic as well as diverting resources from other tasks.

There is much to suggest that clandestine entry may increase in the next year in line with expected higher migratory pressure at the EU external borders in general. Heightened security measures make the green border harder to cross. At the same time, increased vehicle traffic at select border-crossing points (not to mention possibly altered circumstances while crossing land BCPs during the introduction of the Entry-Exit System) increases the chances of clandestine migrants going undetected, often under life-threating and inhumane conditions.

Further, the nationalities most often found using this modus operandi in recent years (Afghans and Syrians foremost) come from countries where some of the largest increases in movements to Europe may be expected. Hence, assuming some degree of proportionality, increased irregular movements to Europe will also result in increased clandestine entry. In light of changing migration and border management in the EU, in particular the aforementioned proliferation of border fences, it is possible that this modus operandi will grow more attractive relative to well-established irregular migration routes.

As a significant share of the detections of clandestine entry cases result from customs controls rather than border checks (customs inspections by nature are more likely to lead to the discovery of hidden passengers), increased cooperation with customs authorities continues to be an operational imperative, as is the need for closing gaps in the equipment necessary to detect clandestine entries. Neighbouring countries’ exit checks have and will play a crucial role in this modus operandi. Diligent exit checks prevent an unknown number of clandestine entries, hence cooperation with these countries is crucial. Importantly, exit checks reflect both operational capabilities and political will (the latter often of course determining the former). In view of the factors described in the previous chapter, there are a range of neighbouring countries that may decide to relax their exit checks at the border, which may trigger the need for a swift operational response. In cases where neighbouring countries are cooperative, ‘forward deployment’ of the EBCG Standing Corps may help in collaboratively establishing and rolling out best practices in exit checks leading up to EU borders.

On exit from the EU, attempts to reach the UK by clandestine entry were largely superseded by the small boats modus operandi in 2022. The resulting new legislation that the UK is introducing in 2023/2024 could lead to renewed attempts to hide on ferries or in trucks, as entering undetected would once again be much more attractive than running the risk of being denied the right to apply for asylum and being deported. The mere prospect of the new legislation could also have this result.

Part 2 of the Frontex Risk Analysis 2023/2024 will be included November/December issue of BSR.