Asylum seekers frequently attempt to reach the EU via rubber dinghies on the Mediterranean Sea | Photo: Imago Images
Asylum seekers frequently attempt to reach the EU via rubber dinghies on the Mediterranean Sea | Photo: Imago Images

What are the main routes used by migrants and refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia attempting to reach the European Union? Here's a quick look at the four main routes.

What are the most frequented routes used by migrants and refugees hoping to reach the European Union? Here's an overview, based on data from Frontex, the border agency of the European Union (EU).


Migrants attempting to reach the European Union from Libya and Tunisia travel across the Central Mediterranean, hoping to reach primarily Italy but also Malta.

Between January and October 2021, almost 55,000 migrants arrived irregularly via the Central Mediterranean. The largest group -- over 15,000 -- were Tunisian nationals, followed by Bangladeshi and Egyptian citizens.

Hundreds of thousands of people have used the Central Mediterranean Route in recent years, but the number of crossings has fallen significantly since 2016, when a record number of people -- more than 180,000 -- irregularly crossed the sea border to Italy and Malta.

Libya in particular has become a transit country for migrants from many African and even some Asian countries. The political instability of the country has given room to vast human trafficking networks; many migrants are blackmailed and suffer abuse in Libya. Inspite of this, the European Union and Italy are supporting Libyan coast guards, who regularly intercept and return migrant boats in the Mediterranean.


The Eastern Mediterranean Route leads from Turkey to Greece.

This route saw the largest number of arrivals in 2015, when 885,000 people -- most of them Syrian refugees escaping their countries civil war -- used it to reach in the European Union, according to Frontex. Today, it is much less frequented.

Since the beginning of 2021, just over 15,000 have arrived using this route, most of whom are Syrian nationals.

The drastic decrease in arrivals along this route is likely in part due to the controversial EU-Turkey deal, an agreement between the EU and Turkey that was heavily criticized by NGOs and that essentially blocked off the Aegean coast. But Greece has also been accused of pushing back migrants and refugees in the Aegean -- the sea between Greece and Turkey.


Spain is among the European countries that have seen the largest number of migrant and refugee arrivals. There are two sea crossings migrants can attempt to reach Spain: The Western Mediterranean -- mostly from eastern Morocco to the Spanish mainland -- and the Atlantic -- from western Morocco/Western Sahara and other northwestern African countries to the Canaries, a Spanish island group located off the coast of northwestern Africa. A smaller number of people have also attempted to reach Spain via the land or sea route to Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish enclaves located in Morocco.

Frontex counted roughly 33,000 border crossings on these routes so far in 2021 -- nearly 16,400 in the Western Mediterranean (mostly Algerians and Moroccans), more than 16,700 on the Atlantic (mostly people from Sub-Saharan countries and Morrocans).


This route has drawn a great deal of attention in recent days, as thousands of migrants and refugees have been stuck at the border between Belarus and eastern EU member countries -- primarily Poland -- amid growing tension between the EU and Belarus' autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko.

From January until October, Frontex reportedly registered nearly 6,600 attempts to irregularly cross the EU border from its Eastern European neighbors, primarily Belarus. More than half the registered migrants and refugees were Iraqis, followed by Afghans, Syrians and Congolese.

[Not mentioned in this article are routes that migrants use after they first arrive in the European Union -- the Balkan Route in particular is not listed because most migrants and refugees using this route have travelled through Greece or Bulgaria. Nearly 50,000 irregular border crossings were detected in Balkan EU countries between January and October 2021 -- most of them Syrian nationals.]


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