Frontex Risk Analysis 2023/2024 discusses challenges at EU external borders – Part 2

On September 4th Frontex published its annual Risk Analysis Report for 2023/2024, providing an overview of the challenges at the European Union’s external borders. This is the second extract from the report as it relates to migration and human trafficking

Secondary movements
In 2022, EU MS/SAC reported the highest level of secondary movements since 20161. Authorities registered 317 500 detections of third-country nationals travelling within the EU/Schengen Area without permission to stay, 92% more than in 2021.2 This increase was mostly due to more irregular migrants detected en route from the Western Balkans region towards more Western and Northern EU MS/SAC. The situation at the EU external borders with the Western Balkan countries is mainly fueled by the transit migration via the Eastern Mediterranean and the arrivals in Western Balkan countries based on their visa policies.

Many migrants detected on these routes were of nationalities that are required to hold a visa to enter the Schengen area but enjoyed visa-free travel to one or more third countries. For example, illegally staying Indian and Tunisian nationals ranked third and fourth, respectively, as regards intra-EU/Schengen movements in 2022 and were particularly prevalent on the Western Balkan route.

Following intensive consultations of the EU with Western Balkan states in 2022, a visible decrease was observed in the secondary movements of third-country nationals who had previously arrived at certain third‑country airports and then illegally crossed the EU’s external borders.

Their number is expected to further decline in 2023. Moreover, since 2021, three third countries in the Western Balkans currently host a fully-fledged Frontex operation, thereby supporting their authorities in the prevention of future irregular migration to the EU.

The intra-Schengen routes emanating from the Western Balkans were also used by third-country nationals who had entered the EU on the Eastern Mediterranean route. As the number of arrivals in the Eastern Mediterranean remains large, it can be expected that irregular secondary movements towards EU MS/ SAC in the west and north of the EU will remain on a high level in 2023. The flow mostly consists of Afghan and Syrian nationals but also nationals from North Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The increase in irregular migration on the Central Mediterranean route in 2022 bears a significant risk of increased secondary flows in 2023. Current northward secondary movements show a clear upward trend. This trend is likely to consolidate in 2023, especially considering increasing illegal border-crossings in summertime. Almost half of the third-country nationals irregularly travelling in the Central Mediterranean are migrants from Middle Eastern or Asian countries, such as Syria and Pakistan.

When apprehended in a transit country within the EU/Schengen Area, migrants often try to continue their trip by applying for asylum and then absconding.
This phenomenon finds reflection in the high rate of implicitly withdrawn applications and the large number of take back requests made under the Dublin Regulation. EUAA analysis3 indicates that many more asylum applications were implicitly withdrawn in the EU/SAC in 2022 than in any of the past five years.
The ratio of withdrawn applications to applications lodged thus rose from about 1 in 10 in the previous 4 years to 1 in 7 in 2022.

The reasons for secondary movements are multifaceted and difficult to generalise.

Although asylum recognition rates for some nationalities differ strongly across EU MS/SAC, it is not clear to what extent this might encourage secondary movements. For example, Syrians have rather high recognition rates all over Europe – including in typical transit countries – and have still been moving onwards.
Furthermore, secondary movements also take place after protection status has been granted in another EU MS/SAC. In such cases, the actual content of protection status and related integration and livelihood opportunities, which differ between EU MS/SAC, may be a determining factor.

Another important aspect might be differences in reception conditions and accommodation facilities across EU MS/ SAC, which are also found to play a role for beneficiaries. The mere availability of reception space in general or for particular groups (e.g. vulnerable persons) can be crucial.

For example, insufficient reception space has led to temporary accommodation in containers and tents in some countries.5 Furthermore, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put additional pressure on reception capacities across the EU.

Moreover, having family members already staying in specific EU countries might also be a significant driver of secondary movements.

Insufficient registration after detection at the EU’s external borders complicates subsequent identification of arrivals in other EU MS/SAC and hinders their transfer back to those countries that should be in charge of examining the application for international protection under the Dublin procedure.

This significantly facilitates secondary movements. In 2022, according to eu- LISA data, the number of Eurodac registrations (category 2) was 42% lower than the number of the illegal crossings detected at the EU’s external border.

The migration pressure currently affecting the EU’s external borders remains high, especially in terms of arrivals on the Central Mediterranean route. Therefore, it is very likely that the level of secondary movements will remain high or even increase in 2023. Again, this underlines the importance of mitigating vulnerabilities in the registration and accommodation of migrants crossing the EU’s external borders illegally. Moreover, addressing gaps in the return systems of individual EU MS/SAC and swifter implementation of Dublin transfers may also discourage irregular migrants from undertaking secondary movements across Europe.

Risks to returns
With around 86 000 effective returns of third-country nationals, the 2022 figure was almost unchanged compared to 2021 (+1.6%). Hence the last three years were the years with the lowest figures of effective returns since the data collection began in 2011.

There are multiple reasons for the low number of effective returns in 2022, the most important one being the war in Ukraine. In the years 2018–2022, Ukrainians were the third-country nationality accounting for the highest number of returns. The Temporary Protection Directive adopted after Russia’s invasion allows Ukrainian refugees to stay in the EU MS/SAC. Moreover, a lack of cooperation also substantially reduced the returns to Russia in 2022.

As the pandemic-related travel restrictions were being relaxed in 2022, it would be reasonable to expect an overall increase in effective returns. Instead, their number barely rose. On the other hand, Member States reported a more marked increase in return decisions issued in 2022 (515 000, 9% more than in 2021). At the same time, the number of illegal border-crossings surged much more significantly, i.e. by 66% between these two years.

What are the challenges on the way to more returns?

The European Commission’s policy document towards an operational strategy for more effective returns issued in January 2023 points to the current challenges and obstacles on the way to an effective return system. Specifically, the document mentions problems such as lengthy administrative and judicial procedures, difficulties in preventing absconding, insufficient resources, and limited administrative capacity to follow up on return decisions.

In fact, available indicators related to the irregular migration management show large discrepancies between irregular migration, negative asylum decisions, and return decisions on one hand and the effective returns on the other. The number of effective returns is many times lower than those reported for irregular migration and asylum indicators.

This shows a considerable mismatch between return and migration/ asylum processes in the reporting countries. Moreover, the chronological evolution of the average number of return decisions issued per one return suggests the return procedures are getting increasingly lengthy.

There is a growing divergence between the Western Balkan countries, which have a positive track record on return cooperation, and other regions, such as Western African states, to which returns tend to be difficult. Hence while the ratio between the reported decisions per effective return actually carried out has stayed fairly similar for Western Balkan nationals, the ratio has steeply risen for Western African, Southern Asian and Northern African nationals. This suggests that the relation between decisions and effective returns can be used as an approximate indicator for the effectiveness of returns.

The Commission´s policy document also points out the challenges posed by insufficient level of cooperation with countries of origin. MS data show that third-country authorities issued 18 413 Emergency Travel Documents (ETDs) in 2022, which is a 5% decrease in relation to the previous year. The number of Member States’ requests for identification, verification, or ETDs to consular authorities on the other hand increased to 61 464 (+11%).

What is the expected impact of the challenges to the return caseload and what nationalities are most likely to add to it in 2023?

An overall forecast of the return situation in 2023 would be complex and rather unreliable with the currently available return data. An enhanced data collection and more reporting completeness, timeliness and accuracy would be required to better understand the situation.

The following outlook discusses some selected regions and third-countries of origin which are deemed most likely to increase the return caseload in 2023.

Returns to West African countries
The current numbers of asylum applications by West African nationals and detected West African illegal stayers do not suggest the future return caseload will necessarily increase. However, the irregular migration pressure from West African countries on the Central Mediterranean route rose significantly in the fourth quarter of 2022. Until September 2022, about 800 irregular migrants from that region were registered in the Central Mediterranean per month but then this indicator surged to 3 700 in December.

The recent increase in West African migrants arriving in the Central Mediterranean has not yet had any major effect on the number of secondary movements and return decisions.

However, a further increase on this route is likely, and the average asylum recognition rate2 is at around merely 30%. In addition, the level of cooperation with West African countries’ authorities is rather low, resulting in only few returns being carried out compared with the number of return decisions issued.

Returns to North African countries
The irregular migration pressure towards the EU as regards North African nationals, increased considerably in 2022. In the second half of 2022, the number of detections of illegal stayers increased by around 70%. Most of the increase was due to migrant boat arrivals in Italy. Most of the irregular migrants coming from North Africa applied for asylum. Asylum authorities of EU MS/SAC issued around 25 000 negative asylum decisions to nationals of this region in 2022, with the recognition rate of only around 20%. EU MS/SAC reported about 112 000 return decisions, but only around 8 500 North African country nationals were effectively returned.

The migration pressure on the Western Balkans route eased off as Serbia tightened its entry rules and other Western Balkan countries aligned visa policies with the EU. However, the currently observed increase on the Central Mediterranean route, a large 2022 backlog of pending return decisions, and a rather insufficient and unsustainable level of cooperation with third-country authorities point to an increased caseload of returns to North Africa in 2023.

The European Union is both a source region of victims of trafficking in human beings (THB) and an important destination for trafficked persons originating from third countries. Based on Eurostat data for 2021, 41% of the reported THB victims were non-EU nationals. Sexual exploitation (56%) remained the prevailing form of trafficking in the EU, followed by labour exploitation (29%). Other reported types of exploitation included forced crime, forced begging, benefit fraud, and removal of organs. Women and girls comprised the largest group of identified THB victims (68%), both among the EU and non-EU nationals.

There is a strong correlation between the sex of the victims and the purpose of trafficking. The great majority of victims of sexual exploitation were females (87%), of which 27% were girls under the age of 18. By contrast, 66% of the victims of forced labour were male.

The increased migration flows in 2022 also raised the risk of exploitation of vulnerable people on the move. In general, direct forms of abuse, e.g., use of threat or force during smuggling activities, are easier to identify, but more subtle ways of coercion can be less obvious and difficult to detect. Moreover, victims might be unaware that they are trafficked, which makes the detection of THB at the borders even harder.

The nationality composition of THB victims in Europe has been changing dynamically, often following the developments of humanitarian crises around the world. Despite the lower numbers of non-EU victims reported in the past few years (mostly due to COVID-19 travel restrictions), available data indicate that persons arriving via migratory routes from North and West Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East and the Western Balkans have been at continuous risk of labour and sexual exploitation.

According to Eurostat data, there were over 7000 THB victims identified in 2021, which was in line with the trend of the previous years. However, the actual number of victims was likely much higher than the reports suggested, as these statistics only capture victims that become known to the registering entities, and so many victims go undetected.

For example, just one recent international investigation supported by Europol revealed a criminal network involved in forced prostitution of hundreds of Chinese women across Europe.

Despite the overall decline in registered cases, in 2022, the hidden forced prostitution of victims from African countries in Europe most likely continued at an unchanged level. Countries of first registration of African migrants in the south of Europe, as well as EU Member States in Western Europe remain top destinations for human trafficking. North Africa is perceived as the main trafficking hub of African THB victims experiencing sexual and labour exploitation in countries of Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. For example, over the last several years Nigerian, Congolese, Cameroonian and other African women among the migrants arriving in Cyprus and countries in southeast Europe were reportedly trafficked by violent African criminal groups and ended up forced into prostitution in private apartments, bars, and nightclubs.

Institutional instability and militarisation of the societies in countries with long-lasting conflicts have been generating economic inequalities and security threats, which are among the main reasons for large population displacements.

In turn, displacements in the wake of military conflicts and socio-political turmoil expose members of vulnerable groups to the influence of organised crime. In 2022, long-lasting conflicts in the Middle East and Africa remained in the shadow of the ongoing war in Ukraine, yet the abuse of rights of women and children from these regions continue to be of great concern. Moreover, while migrant smuggling is a distinct criminal phenomenon, it subjects the irregular migrants and refugees to various forms of abuse and creates big profit opportunities for criminal networks.

In 2022, the Russian aggression against Ukraine significantly changed the nationality composition of refugees arriving in the EU. According to UNHCR, the total number of refugees worldwide rose by a record 35 per cent, or 8.9 million people, to reach 34.6 million at the end of 2022.3 More than half of that number were Syrians, Venezuelans and Ukrainians, as the increase was largely driven by people fleeing the war in Ukraine. A further estimated 6.3 million people remained displaced within this country.

Separation from families and long journeys across several countries to reach safe destinations makes refugees and migrants vulnerable to violations of their rights such as sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, forced criminality, and forced begging. In 2022, the number of related incidents was kept low by efforts to prevent forced prostitution of women and illegal adoptions of Ukrainian children, as well as the adequate care provided by foster institutions in the EU Member States. However, the risk of trafficking might be rising in view of an increasing number of casualties, both military and civilian, and of unparented children.

While the dimension of child trafficking often remains unknown, reported cases mostly involve sexual exploitation, forced begging, and forced crime. Based on Eurostat data, the share of children among the reported THB victims in Europe remains a worrying indicator, with many EU Member States registering high numbers of trafficked children in the EU.

Over the last few years, the majority of the children arrived in the EU with the migration flows along the sea routes, mostly in the Central Mediterranean, but also in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans. The year 2022 was no exception, with around 35 000 children being reported among the irregular migrants, almost 16 000 of which were unaccompanied minors.

With the lack of legal pathways, the health and life of migrants are put in danger. This is especially true for children, who are among the most vulnerable.
Migrant smuggling often places those involved in dire and inhumane conditions and can also result in different forms of exploitation of vulnerable people.
Migrants are transported in unseaworthy boats through the Mediterranean and the English Channel or put in hidden compartments of road vehicles along land routes in the Balkans. Minors are also used as facilitators of other migrants crossing the external borders and making secondary movements, as they can count on lighter sentences when caught by law-enforcement authorities. It is also necessary to extend continuous care and support to child migrants who have already reached Europe, as unaccompanied minors are often exposed to the influence of criminal groups in their country of residence. For example, recent investigations in countries in Western Europe underlined the risk of minors either going missing or being coerced into crime.

Although the signs of trafficking at the borders become less obvious with the increasing use of internet for the recruitment of THB victims and the offering of facilitation services alike, the prevention measures at the borders remain important for reducing the risks for vulnerable persons. Constant monitoring of specific risk indicators is recommended, as well as cooperation of law enforcement with NGOs and cultural mediators for early identification and prevention of exploitation of vulnerable individuals among migrants and refugees.

Looking forward, long-lasting instability in Africa and the Middle East continue to generate regional population displacements and migration flows towards the EU. With limited institutional support to vulnerable people in conflict regions around the world as well as discrimination of women and children the risk of human trafficking will most likely persist. This pertains both to migrants in transit and those in destination countries.

Along with sexual exploitation, forced labour remains one of the main risks, especially for long-term displaced persons, including the refugees from Ukraine. Criminal networks are likely to continue to take advantage of the war in Ukraine, inter alia attempting to lure women into prostitution and bring illegal workers from Ukraine to Europe. A rise in illegal practices is expected to occur in 2023 with a growing demand for seasonal workers in sectors such as agriculture, hospitality, construction, etc. The risk of child trafficking also remains high as OCGs might try to bring unaccompanied minors from Ukraine for the purpose of illegal adoption or various forms of exploitation.

As humanitarian crises and military conflicts increase the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in Europe along the migratory routes, the risk of child exploitation significantly rises. As in the previous years, the high number of unaccompanied minors will be one of the main concerns for EU Member States in 2023.
Part 1 of Frontex Risk Analysis 2023/2024 was included September/October issue of BSR.