In the first six months of this year, approximately 15,700 people crossed the Mediterranean from northern Africa in an effort to try to enter Europe illegally, according to a spokeswoman of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Brussels. That's a drop of more than 50 percent over the same period in 2008, when more than 67,000 people managed to reach ports in southern Europe.
An agreement between Rome and Tripoli, allowing Italy to return illegal immigrants from Eritrea to Libya, was enacted in May.
That could well be the main reason for the fall in the number of arrivals, said UNHCR expert, Vanessa Saenen.
Italy, Greece, Spain, Malta and Cyprus have all reported fewer boat landings in the first half of 2009. 6,782 refugees arrived in Italy, 4,734 in Greece, 3,249 in Spain, 865 on Malta and 94 on Cyprus.
Berlin criticized for helping to stop boats
The head of the German branch of Amnesty International, Monika Lueke, has criticized the German government for assisting local authorities in forcing boats carrying refugees to turn around and go back to Libya.
“That amounts to assisting in breaching international law,” Lueke told the German Berliner Zeitung daily newspaper. The German government could instead provide shelter for a number of refugees and review the quota on a yearly basis, she said.
“Germany cannot ignore its obligation to adhere to the Geneva Convention,” said Lueke.
The exact number of people who died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean is unknown. Around 200 boat people drowned off the coast of Libya in March, 2009. Italy and Spain reported 675 drownings last year.
Southern Europe only part of the problem
EU authorities also plan to tackle a much larger influx of illegal immigrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, who try to enter Europe via Turkey.
The EU is due to start talks with Turkey this fall to seek ways to crack down on people-smuggling rings in order to stem the flow of illegal immigrants from those regions.
Many attempt to enter the EU from Turkey via its border with Greece. Greek authorities took 246,000 illegal immigrants into custody in 2008, up 25 percent on the year before.
No figures are yet available for 2009, but human rights agencies predict a slight drop, attributing it to tougher punishments for human traffickers that came into force last month. Illegal immigrants now also face jail terms of up to one year instead of three months, as in the past.
Editor: Susan Houlton