In a summer marked by a strange shift in the flow of undocumented migrants, this year we are likely to see fewer images of heavily laden boats desperately attempting to land on European beaches. According to the latest figures from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), depending on the destination, the number of incoming boats has declined by between 50% and 95%.

For Italy, steep decline in number of migrant vessels

Just three years ago, Malta, which has a small surface area and high population density, had to contend with a serious crisis prompted by the arrival of 1,500 to 3,000 migrants every summer. However, authorities in Valletta now report that no vessels have landed on the island since March of this year, and this decrease has followed hot on the heels of a 50% decline in 2008 and 2009. In April, perceptions of the situation had changed to the point where the Maltese government announced that it will discontinue joint operations with the European border security agency (Frontex).

Italy has also reported a steep decline in the number of migrant vessels landing on its shores, notably on the island of Lampedusa. According to the UNHCR office in Rome, the latest estimates show a decrease of 94% between 2009 and the first six months of 2010. As it did elsewhere, the trend first emerged in 2006 — a year when 22,000 migrants sailed from North Africa to land on the Italian coast. This figure declined to 19,900 in 2007, and fell again to just 8,700 in 2009.

A knock-on effect in France

There has also been a considerable decrease in Spain, with the UNHCR in Madrid reporting a 50% drop between 2008 and 2009. In 2006, 39,000 migrants succeeded in landing at different points on the Spanish coast, notably in the Canary and Balearic Islands. In 2007, this number dwindled to 18,000. And in 2008, it fell again to only 13,400.

These figures have had a knock-on effect in France, where the national director of the French border police, Frédéric Perrin, has remarked on the ongoing reduction of "migratory pressure" in the Calais area, and on the Vintimille-Paris rail route which is often used by migrants arriving from Italy. The number migrants arrested in France has also declined by 20% since the beginning of this year. Some of the credit for the new figures has been attributed to Frontex, which, in recent years, has increased the number and efficiency of its naval patrols which now benefit from bilateral agreements that enable its vessels to operate from ports in migrant-source countries. At the same time, the economic crisis has also reduced the appeal of European destinations.

A radical shift towards Turkey

Collaboration with Libya, which was a gateway for African migrants on their way to Italy, has also played an important role. Within the framework of a diplomatic accord with Silvio Berlusconi's government, which included a five billion euros in funding and Italian recognition of the damage caused to Libya by colonisation in the early 20th century, authorities in Tripoli began reinforcing controls on Libyan borders in early 2009. Since then, they have also signed a 300 million-euro deal with an Italian provider of security equipment — including infrared systems — to seal the country's southern border, and conducted talks with the European Union, which resulted in the signature of a 60 million-euro deal with clauses on limiting illegal immigration on 9 June.

All of these developments have resulted in a radical shift in Mediterranean migration flows which have moved eastward towards Turkey, which has now become the main source country for migrants entering Europe. According to the UNHCR in Istanbul, Turkish authorities arrested some 70,000 undocumented migrants in 2009. And this enormous figure may be only be a partial reflection of the current reality.

Greece already struggling to cope

It is not easy to determine the extent to which the problem of migration to Europe has been exported beyond European borders. Many of the migrants arriving in Turkey are Afghans, Somalians and Eritreans, who do not come from West Africa. At the same time NGOs have reported that many would-be African migrants are stuck in the Maghreb, where they are waiting for conditions to improve. At the same time, Moroccans, who are not required to obtain visas when entering Thailand, have begun to circumvent the new border controls by flying to Bangkok, and then onward to Istanbul. On arrival in Turkey, migrants choose between two main routes: a northern route that passes through Bulgaria and Romania before it reaches Northern Europe, and a southern route via Greece for destinations in Italy France and Spain.

Greece is already struggling to cope with the burden of growing migration flows. According to the UNHCR in Athens, in 2008, Greek authorities arrested 150,000 undocumented migrants, 75% of the total number in Europe as opposed to 50% in 2008. Figures for the first six months of this year also show that land routes are increasingly preferred to sea crossings. NGOs and the UNHCR are very concerned by the fate of asylum seekers in Greece, which as a rule is very reluctant to grant refugee status. As it stands, Turkey has a policy of systematically refusing to accept migrants from outside of the European Union.