The European border and coast guard agency helped return a record of more than 18,000 non-EU nationals to 102 countries last year, with Cyprus being among the main operations, a report showed on Tuesday.

The year 2021 was a game-changer for Frontex, Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri was quoted in the agency’s report.

“With Covid-19 still ever-present, we managed to post the first standing corps officers to the EU’s external borders, run 19 operations, achieve significant results in combatting cross-border crime and supporting member states with border management,” Leggeri said.

Despite ongoing travel restrictions, more than 2,000 standing corps were deployed at the EU’s external borders and beyond.

Of the 18,300 people returned 4,674 people returned on a voluntary basis.

“Frontex’s support has grown significantly… with voluntary returns constituting 25 per cent of all returns supported by the agency,” the report said.

The European Border and Coast Guard also identified 1,050 people smugglers, seized 16 kilos of drugs, 184 stolen cars, and detected 6,100 fraudulent documents.

Cyprus was among the main operations by size of deployment as standing corps officers assisted with border management in the island.

They also responded to the hybrid threats at the Eastern borders, and assisted with evacuations from Afghanistan in Georgia.

“All these achievements go hand-in-hand with increased fundamental rights safeguards,” the executive director added.

In 2021, the Agency adopted the Fundamental Rights Strategy to guarantee the protection of fundamental rights in the performance of the daily tasks of the agency. In line with the strategy, Frontex recruited the new Fundamental Rights Officer and Fundamental Rights Monitors who regularly observe operations.

A total of 34,349 people were also rescued last year by Frontex, who taught its officers a worldwide sign used by victims of abuse.

The signal, created by the Canadian Women’s Foundation for people to indicate that they need help, has spread in the past year, largely through TikTok.

This #SignalForHelp is a one-handed gesture that involves a palm faced to the camera or person and tucking the thumb into the palm and folding the remaining four fingers over it.

“Frontex has undergone a profound transformation to become an operational arm of the European Union, working side-by-side with national authorities of Member States to watch over and protect our common external borders,” the report added.