Mediterranean Migration to Europe Drops Sharply

Spanish humanitarian group Proactiva Open Arms during a rescue operation in 2016. Spain became the main entry point for refugees into Europe in 2018.

Spanish humanitarian group Proactiva Open Arms during a rescue operation in 2016. Spain became the main entry point for refugees into Europe in 2018.


Photo:

aris messinis/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Fewer migrants crossed, and drowned in, the Mediterranean in 2018 than the previous year, new United Nations data show, reflecting European countries’ continuing attempts to reduce the flow of refugees from Africa and the Middle East that have caused political ructions in much of Europe.

Tensions over the rise in refugees and other migrants entering the European Union have contributed to the rise of far-right nativist parties across the bloc with immigration and asylum remaining one of the most polarizing issues in European politics.

Some 114,941 people landed in Europe by sea last year, down from 172,301 in 2017, according to the U.N. refugee agency. An estimated 2,262 people died or went missing while attempting the perilous journey to Europe, down from 3,139 the year before. Despite the drop, the Mediterranean route remains the deadliest migration route in the world, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The data show that migration flows have dropped sharply compared with the peak of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, when more than a million refugees and other migrants arrived in Europe.

Many EU countries have toughened their immigration policies since 2015, and the bloc has tried to stop migration to Europe via cooperation pacts—including financial incentives—with authorities in Turkey, Libya and other countries on the main migration routes.

Greece, which received some 856,723 refugees and other migrants in 2015, most of them via its Aegean islands, saw only 32,497 arrivals last year—still higher than the 29,718 arrivals in 2017. The reduction reflects cooperation with Turkey and beefed-up border fences and patrols along the Balkan route into Europe. Conditions in refugee camps on Greek islands remain notoriously squalid, sparking accusations that the EU and Greece are deliberately exposing asylum seekers to harsh conditions to deter other would-be migrants.

But, in addition to the seaborne route, Greece also saw a rise in asylum seekers crossing the country’s narrow land border with Turkey. Greek police estimate that around 17,000 people entered via the land route through November last year, about half of whom were Turks fleeing the continuing purges of perceived enemies by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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Spain became the main entry point to Europe in 2018, as 57,215 migrants landed on its shores, around half of Europe’s total arrivals via the Mediterranean. The number of arrivals in Spain was more than double the level in 2017 and set a record for the country.

The center-left government of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has been more welcoming than some other EU governments, but immigration issues have contributed to the rise of the far-right Vox party in the country ahead of elections this year.

Italy, which saw some 119,369 arrivals in 2017, reduced its inflow sharply to 23,371 in 2018, mostly via cooperation deals with the government and tribal chiefs in Libya, the main departure point for sea crossings to Italy.

The new government in Rome, which includes the anti-immigration League, has further clamped down by denying landing permission to ships run by nongovernmental organizations that rescue migrants at sea.

Write to Nektaria Stamouli at nektaria.stamouli@wsj.com