(Bloomberg) -- The European Union is again training its attention on migration as it struggles to deal with countries it says are increasingly using the flow of citizens as a geopolitical tool against the bloc.

There were around 330,000 irregular border crossings detected into the EU last year, the highest level since 2016, according to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. That’s up 64% from 2021. 

EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday will discuss the migration situation with the aim, after years of disagreement, of starting to develop a comprehensive approach to more effectively control the bloc’s borders. The issue is complicated by the fact that millions of Ukrainian refugees entered the EU last year. 

“We have to discuss the instrumentalization of migration,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told reporters in Brussels ahead of the summit. “Countries that are hostile toward Europe, they know that migration is our weakness and they are using migration as a tool to weaken us.”

The EU has previously accused both Russia and Belarus of engineering crises by inviting migrants from the Middle East and Africa and seeking to send them over the border into the EU. The EU also said that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko orchestrated a migration situation on the EU’s border in retaliation for sanctions the bloc imposed on his crackdown of opposition protests in 2020. 

External Border

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has proposed using joint resources to strengthen the external border, update procedures to return asylum seekers, address secondary movement within the bloc and work with partners to improve arrangements for returning people to their country of origin, according to a letter Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sent to member states last month. 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the EU faces a balancing act of making clear on the one hand that migrants with no right of asylum will always have to leave, and that policy makers on the other hand must open up legal ways to allow migration to fill labor gaps. 

“An important common activity must always be that we come to an understanding between the European Union and the countries of origin of many refugees, and that those who cannot invoke the protection of Europe and the right of asylum also return to their countries of origin,” Scholz told reporters in Brussels on Thursday.

The increase of migrants — mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Tunisia — came at a time when 13 million Ukrainians also sought shelter in the member states, fleeing Russia’s aggression. Around 10 million Ukrainians left the bloc during that time. 

Turkish Deal

Europe’s elusive joint approach in dealing with the large numbers of people fleeing their homes is bound to get worse after the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria. The EU relies on Turkey — which hosts around 4 million refugees — to stem the flow of migrants over its borders. 

The EU struck a deal with Turkey in 2016 under which Ankara agreed to stop the movement of migrants toward Europe in exchange for financial assistance. 

The flow of migrants through the western Balkans accounted for almost half of all illegal border crossings into EU in 2022. Since the transit countries are also aspirants for EU membership, the bloc is using this as leverage to make them tighten their travel restrictions, after tens of thousands from the Middle East, Asia and Africa used the area as a gateway to Europe.

“The problem is not to cut migration, but to manage it in a human way,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said in Brussels. “More and more migration is at the core of our relation with a lot of countries around the world and we have to work with them and tackle the root causes of migration.”

--With assistance from Katharina Rosskopf and Michael Nienaber.

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