At the height of Europe’s recent migration crisis, more than 7,000 people landed every day at the Greek islands that face Turkey. Orange life vests covered the beaches of northern Lesvos while multiplying numbers of new arrivals slept in fields and at the island’s main port.
That was the fall of 2015.
Now, with international efforts underway to block smugglers and their human cargo on one of the Mediterranean Sea routes to Europe, smugglers are finding alternatives. As a result, Spain is set to overtake Greece this year as a key entry point for migrants, although Italy far and away outpaces the two other countries.
Here’s a look at relocation trends so far this year, based on data from the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Italy applies brakes
Italy is bearing the heaviest share of the exodus to Europe, with 97,000 refugees and economic migrants arriving illegally by boat so far this year. The government recently responded with more aggressive policies to prevent migrant boats that typically originate in Libya from reaching its ports.
Actions include sending Italian military ships and personnel to assist Libya’s coast guard with patrols and interceptions. Human rights groups warn that stopping the boats will expose refugees and migrants to abuse and inhuman living conditions in Libyan detention camps. The Italian government says the stepped-up enforcement appears to be achieving its goal.
The number of refugees and migrants making it to Greece dropped dramatically last year after several Balkan countries tightened their borders, closing off a main land route migrants were using to reach their destinations in Europe.
A deal the European Union brokered with Turkey to deter people from setting off for Greece also has largely held, despite the ongoing political crisis in that country. NATO-backed patrolling in the Aegean Sea has helped with enforcement of the agreement.
The number of people arriving to Greek islands fell to 173,450 in 2016 after peaking at more than 850,000 the year before, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. So far this year, 12,440 had arrived as of Aug. 10, the agency said.
Surge in Spain
The choke points applied to routes that were used to get to Italy and Greece has made Spain a more attractive destination. The 8,385 migrants who reached Spain by sea so far this year is more than double the number for the same period last year.
The recent surge in boat traffic has alarmed authorities, including the videotaped arrival of a migrant dinghy on a beach filling with vacationers.
The EU’s border protection agency, Frontex, says migrant smuggling networks operating in southern Europe are becoming more skilled.
“Organized crime groups involved in migrant smuggling have become more flexible and sophisticated,” the agency said in a 2017 report.
“Migrant smugglers anticipate law-enforcement actions and prepare for policy changes.”