In a recent opinion article published on Publicservice.co.uk, Frontex Director Ilkka Laitinen described the challenges faced by Frontex and provided a description of Frontex’s “unprecedented” activities over the past 12 months in the operational theatre, referring to the first RABIT deployment in October 2010 and the response to the migratory flows from North Africa beginning in January 2011.
Extensive excerpts regarding the response to the migratory flows from North Africa:
“… Since January 2011, world attention has been focused as never before on the Arab world. The ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East once again redrew the European migration map, and Frontex’s operational capacity was tested again. With the arrival of almost 5,000 migrants on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, the agency was once more called upon to assist. However, the support required was in a very different form than that in Greece.
The migratory flows from North Africa towards the EU external borders – predominantly to Italy and Malta – have been very different from those to Greece. Initially, almost all were economic migrants from Tunisia seeking work in Europe.
The modus operandi of the facilitation networks behind the phenomenon was a familiar one to Frontex, namely, over-packing unseaworthy vessels with inadequately experienced crews and little life-saving equipment, if any. This created a predominantly humanitarian need for search and rescue activities at sea. It also created an administrative challenge on shore, to process usually undocumented migrants, establish their nationalities and identities and take care of their immediate needs, as well as to transfer them to better equipped facilities on the mainland and start return procedures where appropriate. There was no call from Italy for a RABIT deployment, however. Italy is very well equipped for maritime border control, as well as for search and rescue activities. Where the Italian authorities requested most support was in Frontex’s other areas of specialisation – intelligence gathering, situational awareness, and the deployment of experts to the field to assist in the screening and debriefing of migrants (establishing probable nationality and gathering evidence of people smuggling respectively). Long before being called on by the Italian Ministry of Interior, Frontex’s Situation Centre and Risk Analysis Unit were busy identifying the full range of possible scenarios in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, as well as monitoring developments in other countries in the region.
Since the first waves of migrants from Tunisia, the situation has evolved constantly, with ever more sub-Saharan migrants and refugees seeking international protection. Such changeable flows require flexibility and constant adjustment to the operational response. For each possible scenario, an appropriate operational response was planned by the Joint Operations Unit and all necessary steps were taken to ensure that a rapid response could be launched anywhere in the operational area at any time.
This is an ongoing process and a challenge to which expert staff at the agency’s Warsaw HQ, and the Frontex Operational Office in Piraeus, Athens, continue to respond. This readiness ensures operational flexibility. It also demonstrates another important area in which Frontex adds value to member states’ activities at the EU’s external borders. It must always be borne in mind that it is the member states themselves that remain at all times responsible for their own borders; Frontex’s role is to provide support when requested. Keeping member states up to date with detailed and accurate intelligence is one of the ways the agency works behind the scenes to maximise member states’ effectiveness. Another way is by providing a platform for exchange of data and other information. Equally, experts in the field debrief migrants to build up a clearer picture of the routes used, prices paid and other modi operandi of the smuggling networks involved.
The cruel sea
The maritime domain remains the most complicated for border control, not least legally. The provisions of national and international maritime law and their impact on migration management, make the seas the most challenging environment for operations. It is for this reason that for many years, Frontex has been encouraging greater coordination between the southern member states themselves through the European Patrols Network (EPN) – an initiative to increase efficiency, improve information sharing and reduce overlapping of efforts and the incumbent gaps they leave in surveillance. It was the existing EPN provisions in the Mediterranean that formed the basis of Frontex’s operational response to the migration flows from North Africa. And it is the EPN that will be strengthened as a combined surveillance response going forward. EPN will form an essential component of EUROSUR, the common European surveillance system now being developed. It will also help to enhance Europe’s search-and-rescue capacity in the Mediterranean.
But as has been said many times, border control is no panacea. It is the last line of control and rescue. Its rightful place is at the heart of a far-reaching IBM [Integrated Border Management] system that includes deterrents against illegal migration as well as incentives for legal migration, and that tackles the root causes of such migration in countries of origin and transit. To put it simply, prevention is better than cure, and by the time migrants reach the external EU border it is often too late.
The most effective way to tackle the dangers of illegal migration by sea is to deter migrants from setting out in the first place. Only when this principle is enshrined at the EU policy level can it be claimed that the Union is seriously tackling illegal migration and cross-border crime.”
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