In an interview with broadcaster CNews on January 16, Bardella lambasted French and European migration policy, denouncing a French government that according to him “has given up on controlling its borders” and “managing its immigration policy“. “We’ve gone way too far with our immigration policy,” he said.
The MEP said he drew his figures from a Frontex press release issued on January 13.
“The Frontex report released a couple of days ago says there was an additional 64 percent in illegal entries into the European Union, so 330,000 people who entered illegally,” Bardella claimed.
Others also denounced this alleged laisser-faire approach to EU borders: “The Frontex hostess agency has let us know that it rolled out the red carpet for 330,000 stowaways during 2022,” said a tweet posted on January 13 and shared more than 300 times.
Individuals vs crossings
But what does the actual press release say? The border agency did indeed announce a 64 percent increase in illegal entries from 2021 — the highest figure since 2016, according to Frontex. “This was the second year in a row with a steep rise in the number of irregular entries,” it said.
So Frontex did not detect 330,000 people, but 330,000 illegal crossings. The agency only records the number of irregular entries detected on EU territory, and not the number of people who entered illegally. Frontex notes that “the same person may attempt to cross the border several times in different locations“, which means that a single person can be recorded several times.
The agency confirmed this in a statement to AFP on January 13: “We refer here to the number of registered illegal entries and not to the number of persons, as one person can illegally cross the external border of the European Union several times.“
Repeated crossings frequent
For a border crossing to be counted, the agency says that “the person must actually cross the external border and enter the European Union“.
The agency says it records each time a person is detected by the authorities but not apprehended, as well as each time a person is stopped and sent back across the border.
This means that several entries can be recorded based on a single person who tried to enter repeatedly. According to Thomas Lacroix, a researcher and migration specialist at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, it is not unusual for a person to cross the border several times in an attempt to enter the EU. “Accounts of migrants who have tried five, 10, 20 times are extremely frequent,” he told AFP on January 18, referring in particular to research on the border between Serbia and Croatia.
Similarly, a person may cross the EU’s borders several times but at different entry points. This is notably the case for migrants entering the EU through Greece from Turkey and then exiting the EU through the Balkans before entering again through Croatia or Hungary.
IOM figures more reliable for actual irregular arrivals
Statistics from other sources put into perspective the figures released by Frontex. The IOM, the United Nations agency in charge of migration, tallies the number of illegal arrivals on European territory each year via its Displacement Tracking Matrix platform.
In an email to AFP on January 18, the IOM said it had counted “187,993 migrants and refugees who entered Europe illegally” in 2022. The figure is drawn from its own field data, information from national authorities and media reports.
This represents an increase of 24 percent compared to 2021, which is less than the 64 percent calculated by Frontex.
“This figure is much more reliable in terms of actual arrivals,” says Lacroix. Unlike Frontex, the IOM — whose figures are more stable over time — says it tries to avoid duplication by, for example, not counting people travelling in the Balkans as it assumes that most are already included in the arrival figures for either Greece, Bulgaria or Cyprus.
However, “as the same person may cross multiple land borders of EU and non-EU countries while moving in the region, there is no way to avoid double counting,” it told AFP.
The IOM added on January 19 that the rise in irregular entry figures may be attributed in part to the relaxation of border restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic. It noted that “the overall arrival numbers are in the same range as 2017-2019, and well below the arrivals of 2015-2016,” the height of the migration crisis.
Many of these irregular entries may also be refugees who can legally apply for asylum in the European Union, the IOM said.
Frontex figures and their limitations
This is not the first time that Frontex’s figures have caused confusion. In October 2022, French newspaper Liberation fact-checked an article by French radio station Europe 1, which claimed that 228,000 people had crossed the European border illegally over the first nine months of that year. Again, this figure pertained to crossings, not individuals.
At the time, Desinfox Migrations, an association that aims to dispel false and misleading information around migration, took to Twitter to warn of this misinterpretation of Frontex figures and called for the figures to be “put into perspective“.
Other observers also contest the Frontex figures.
“The Frontex figures must be taken with a grain of salt,” Tania Racho, a research associate at Paris-Saclay University in European law and consultant for the Desinfox Migrations initiative, told AFP on January 17. Frontex’s figures can be “misleading” and “do not really allow us to know how many people have crossed the borders,” she said.
“Frontex is both umpire and player. This is not independent data,” Virginie Guiraudon, research director at the CNRS at Sciences Po Paris, told AFP on January 17. “Frontex is not Eurostat,” she said, referring to the European Union’s statistics agency.
“To say that the figures have risen sharply is a hasty interpretation that needs to be checked,” said Lacroix. “Frontex publishes these figures to justify their own budget increase. It helps them to both justify past budget increases and ask for future ones.“
The agency’s budget, which has been increasing almost continuously since its launch in 2005, reached 754 million euros in 2022, more than double the amount in 2020 (364 million euros).
In its press release, Frontex recalled its role in protecting Europe’s borders. “These events, along with the steadily increasing number of irregular crossings, demonstrate the need for strong and effective European Border and Coast Guard, with Frontex as strong supporter of Member States,” it said.
Increase in detection capabilities
Lacroix and Racho said the rise in numbers would also be explained in part by the significant increase in Frontex’s human and budgetary resources, for example the more extensive use of drones and surveillance cameras to detect irregular crossings.
Guiraudon added, however, that Frontex data includes information provided by government authorities. “The agency’s budget increase is very significant, but the Frontex border guards are just 1,500 people,” she said. The increase in border-monitoring resources may explain an increase in detections in the medium term, but not from one year to the next, she said.
“This does not mean that the figures are meaningless and show no trends,” Guiraudon said, while urging — like the rest of the researchers interviewed — utmost caution with regard to Frontex data.