BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's southern borders in the Mediterranean will remain under heavy pressure from African migrants trying to reach Europe this year, the head of the EU's border agency Frontex said on Tuesday.
Nearly 119,000 Africans were caught trying to get to the EU last year on smugglers' boats departing from Libya, more than 42,000 from Turkey to Greece and another 23,000 heading from Algeria and Morocco to Spain, Fabrice Leggeri said.
"The pressure, the irregular migration pressure on our southern borders in the Mediterranean will remain at a very high level (in 2018)," Leggeri told a news conference.
While numbers on the Libya-Italy route have declined since last July as Libyan factions and authorities - under pressure from Italy and the EU - began to block departures, especially from the smuggling hub of Sabratha, Leggeri said the crossings to Spain have more than doubled from below 10,000 in 2016.
He said the use of more solid rubber boats on this so-called Western Mediterranean route suggested increased activity of people smugglers.
The EU has made stopping irregular immigration from the Middle East and African countries a priority since 2015, when more than a million people reached its shores, overwhelming member states and fanning support for nationalist, anti-immigrant and populist groups across the bloc.
Since a 2016 EU deal with Turkey mostly put a halt to the irregular arrival of Syrian refugees in Greece, Frontex said African nationals now made up nearly two-thirds of some 205,000 people caught trying to arrive in Europe illegally last year.
Frontex gave a total figure of 511,000 of such crossings for 2016. In 2017, Syrians and Nigerians each made up nine percent of overall arrivals, followed by nationals of the Ivory Coast, Guinea and Morocco.
As the EU tightened asylum laws and controls on external borders, Frontex warned of a possible rise in the use of fraudulent travel documents and undetected crossings, citing examples of people seeking to enter in specially-designed compartments in vans, lorries, cars and cargo trains.
The EU is also trying to step up returns of people with no case for asylum in Europe. Leggeri said Frontex helped deport more than 14,000 people last year.
The EU has struggled to repatriate people who do not qualify for asylum, which is often the case with Africans trying to escape poverty back home rather than war or oppression.
Last year more than 18,000 Nigerians tried to reach the EU via Spain, exceeding the 14,000 Syrians who sought entry via Greece, Frontex said.
Human rights groups have accused the EU of failing to honour its fundamental legal obligations towards migrants and refugees.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones)