After the migration crisis of 2015, the EU agency Frontex was significantly strengthened. Today, when an EU country is under strong migratory pressure, it can count on additional support from Frontex in the form of technical equipment or specialised border and coast guard officials. ESD had the opportunity to speak with the Frontex Spokeswoman Izabella Cooper.
ESD: What are the main challenges ahead of Frontex in 2020 and years to come?
Cooper: Let’s start, maybe, with Frontex itself. It is an EU’s agency, which was set up 15 years ago. Originally, it was set up with the task of providing technical assistance to those countries of the EU, which have an external border and that might need additional support.
A large part of EU countries belongs to the free movement area of Schengen. It means that if you want to travel from Malta all the way to Helsinki you can actually do it without being stopped at a border to show your travel documents. This is valid for both persons and goods.
Let me give you a practical example: before Poland joined the Schengen area, the external land border of the EU was in Germany. When Poland became a member of Schengen, the border checks along its western border were dismantled. From that moment on, in a way, the German external border moved to the Polish-Ukrainian border. Countries, which do not have an external EU land or sea border have to rely on the quality of border checks and surveillance performed by those countries, which do.
Schengen has changed the way countries now think of their borders. Let me give you an example: if a passenger manages to enter the airport in Warsaw using false documents, he or she can then travel to Berlin without any hindrance. A twelve-year-old girl trafficked via sea to Italy may be then easily moved to a brothel in Hannover to be sexually exploited there. Drugs trafficked from Morocco to Spain may end up being sold in front of a school in Berlin, weapons hidden in a truck entering Austria may be used to commit a terrorist attack. Having only one external border puts enormous responsibility on the countries which have one, but it also obliges all the others to offer solidarity if the former face challenges at their borders.
This is why it is very important that border authorities of all countries work together to ensure that the external borders of the EU are safe and duly protected.
ESD: What role does Frontex play in this process?
Cooper: This is exactly where Frontex comes in. Over the past 15 years we saw the migratory flaws moving very fluidly through all EU borders. Few people remember that some 12 years ago the vast majority of migrants entering Europe did so via the Canary Islands. Then, after Spain signed bilateral agreements with Mauretania and Senegal and installed SIVE – sort of a radar control system along their southern maritime borders – the flow moved to the central Mediterranean. And then, after more stringent measures adopted by the Italian authorities, the flows moved to the Greek-Turkish land border. Then to the Greek-Turkish sea border.
In 2011, the Arab Spring resulted in 64,000 migrants and refugees arriving at the Italian shores – at the time, it was a historical record. Four years later, we witnessed the dramatic events of 2015 when 886,000 refugees and migrants arrived from Turkey on five small Greek islands in the Aegean and about 154,000 in Italy.
It was in 2015 that it became clear to all that Schengen external borders are only as strong as their weakest link. Because, whoever managed to enter Italy could then freely move within the Schengen area. Since Greece is surrounded by non-Schengen countries, the refugees and migrants had to cross the Western Balkans and then enter the EU mainly via Hungary or Slovenia and then re-enter the Schengen area, if they wanted to reach Germany, Sweden, France or other countries.
The year 2015 well explains what Frontex could do then and what it can do now, as its mandate was significantly changed as a consequence. When an EU country finds itself under really strong migratory pressure, it can count on additional support from Frontex in the form of technical equipment or specialised border and coast guard officers. But our assistance is not limited to management of migratory flows: we can help when the external borders are affected by any form of serious cross border crime: drug or weapons trafficking, foreign fighters, trafficking in human beings, forged documents etc.
But let’s go back to the events in 2015 when almost 900,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece – almost one tenth of the country’s entire population – in one year. The Hellenic authorities could not cope by themselves. They badly needed help with search and rescue, identification and registration of the incoming migrants, security checks, fingerprinting. There were a lot of asylum seekers among those, who were arriving. That put additional pressure on the asylum authorities. There was an urgent need to provide them with shelter, food, medical assistance to all those people. You can imagine what it meant for the Greek authorities when 5000 people arrived on small, unseaworthy dinghies in one day to one island each day.
ESD: How Frontex can assist those countries in such a crisis?
Cooper: The priority was to save lives at sea. The national authorities simply did not have sufficient amount of technical equipment and border guards to manage such a dramatic situation by themselves. Frontex can coordinate the deployment of additional vessels from various EU countries, patrol planes for border surveillance to ensure on one hand that we could detect boats in distress, but also to make sure that nobody entered the EU undetected. Schengen Borders’ Code requires that all those entering the EU in an irregular manner must be fingerprinted – and that their fingerprints be inserted in the Eurodac system – that they all be registered and identified. Here our agency can deploy additional border guards to assist the country in difficulty. If you only have one external border, you have to know who enters the area of free movement, what their backgrounds are, and make sure that the documents used are not forged. Many of the migrants had no documents whatsoever, others had some, but rather than passports these were drivers’ licences, birth certificates or others. Many documents were forged – you can imagine that the criminal networks in Turkey and in other countries operated a very profitable business selling fake documents, so it was important to ensure these were seized. While the vast majority of those arriving to Greece in 2015 were refugees: Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi nationals, many claimed false nationality to increase their chances of asylum. Here Frontex deployed numerous screeners to assist the Hellenic authorities to establish their real nationality.
It was also important to ensure that more in depth checks were conducted towards possible suspects who may have attempted to take advantage of such huge number of people crossing. Our officers also assisted the Greek authorities with collecting information about the criminal networks operating in the countries of transit – we always share this information with the national authorities and with Europol as they have the mandate to conduct relevant investigations.
If you get 5000 people arriving on boats on one small island, there’s no doubt that the national authorities are not prepared to process them. This was a huge challenge.
It was clear that the national authorities could not cope by themselves and that Frontex needed the member states to send more officers to help Greece.
ESD: How big of a challenge was the crisis of 2015 for Frontex?
Cooper: In 2015, considering the scale of arrivals, we really struggled to help. For two reasons: one was that our mandate in 2015 made us rely on border guards and technical equipment provided to us by the member states. So, when we planned our operations in Greece, Spain, Italy or in other countries, we would devise an operational plan and then make a call for contributions.
As Frontex did not have its own equipment or border guards, each country would be asked to contribute with their boats, helicopters and border guards. I must say, it had never been easy to secure the sufficient amount or both. In 2015 it nearly proved impossible.
As the wave of refugees and migrants moved across the Schengen zone, the individual countries of the EU introduced temporary border checks with their neighbours. This was also quite unprecedented. The Schengen Borders Code does allow to do this in exceptional situation. For example, Sweden reintroduced border control with Denmark. But this was not what Schengen was about. The priority for the European Union in 2015 was to strengthen the external border and yet countries like Sweden, Germany and Austria were receiving people, whose fingerprints were nowhere to be found! It was clear that this situation could not happen again.
In the middle of 2015 Frontex Executive Director asked for additional 7000 officers to be deployed to Greece and Italy. We really struggled to make it happen. It took us a few months to do that. To convince the member states. The priority was, if we were to preserve Schengen, we really had to secure the external borders, where this control should have been in the first place.
It did happen eventually. Other measures were also taken, such as the individual countries in the Western Balkans became more active in controlling their borders. EU-Turkey agreement was signed. By deploying sufficient number of additional officers in Italy and Greece, we finally managed to help these countries manage the flows effectively.
I want to stress that all the officers and technical equipment deployed by Frontex operate under the command of the national authorities of the countries which host our operations. As we speak, there are about 1400 Frontex officers, coming from all 28 EU countries as well as Schengen associated countries, like Iceland and Switzerland. They are deployed not only at the maritime borders, where we’ve got around 40 vessels, several helicopters and aircraft, but they are also present in the countries surrounding the Western Balkans and at tens of international airports. Let’s not forget that international airports also constitute an external border.
ESD: Can we assume that all these tasks, which you have mentioned, are up-to-date even today? Maybe some of them today constitute a threat of a smaller scale that just a few years ago, but they’re still perceived by you as a threat to EU’s internal security?
Cooper: Absolutely, and keep in mind that our mandate in the past 15 years was amended seven times, which is really quite unprecedented for any European agency. We started with a mandate in 2004, which was amended three times. The European Council changed our mandate in 2016 as a consequence of 2015 events. The biggest change, and it was really of historic magnitude, took place last December.
ESD: Which of those challenges you perceive as most disturbing at the moment?
Cooper: The challenges are plenty as there are different forms of cross border crime. The role of Frontex is focusing increasingly not, as it used to be, only on the management of migration, but in assisting the member states in fighting various forms of cross border crime.
We are increasingly focusing on addressing serious forms of cross border crime. This includes drug and weapons trafficking or terrorism. Detection of foreign fighters also features high on our agenda. If you think about it, they are holders of EU passports, so addressing this phenomenon requires a significant level of awareness, training of border guards on how to profile and detect them, in order to signal them to the national police.
ESD: How does Frontex cooperate with authorities of countries, which its officers are deployed in?
Cooper: As I already mentioned, the officers deployed by Frontex always work under the command of the national authorities. If a French officer is deployed on the island of Lesbos by Frontex, that officer will be working under the command of the Hellenic authorities. If a German officer is deployed in Italy, he or she will be working under the command of the Italian authorities. Our role is not to replace, but to help the national authorities in facing challenges at their borders.
As in 2015 it became clear that Schengen borders are only as strong as their weakest link, an important part of our mandate in 2016 was addressing the weak links in the EU’s external border system. European legislators – the heads of 28 states, together with the European Parliament and the Commission – that one way of preventing the future crises was to ensure there be no weak links. That we proactively identify and eliminate the vulnerabilities, so that we are all better prepared to avoid the crises from happening.
ESD: How could this proactiveness look like?
Cooper: An important part of our task is to conduct annual vulnerability assessments of the border and the coast guard capacity of each EU member state. We do this by looking at the national capacity – for example the number of border and coast guard officers, the number and types and technical equipment, the level of their training, contingency plans etc. We correlate that with the types of risks that different border sections may be exposed to and we run crisis scenarios. Based on this we issue recommendations. Vulnerability assessments are obviously classified documents.
One of the biggest challenges for Frontex in the upcoming years is the implementation of the latest mandate of December last year. It brought a change of historical magnitude for Frontex. Among many new areas, probably the biggest one is the creation of the European border corps. It will count 10000 officers, 3000 of which would be recruited directly by Frontex. With the new regulation we will no longer have to rely exclusively on the officers provided to us by the member states, but we will have 3000 European border guards who will be entirely at our disposal. Our own staff.
ESD: How will the new regulation change your capabilities in comparison to what you had to deal with until now?
Cooper: At present, if we have the Polish Border Guard going to the island of Lesbos to take part in our operations, they would be wearing a national uniform and a blue armband. This is how you will be able to tell that these officers are deployed by Frontex. This is absolutely unprecedented development.
So, we will have 3000 officers belonging to Frontex and 1500 officers who will be provided by the member states for long-term deployments lasting from 2 to 4 years. The remaining officers will be available to Frontex on short-term secondment. This will allow us to be more self-sufficient and to guarantee a more permanent presence of additional officers across European external borders.
This is really important, because up to now it was very difficult for us to flexibly respond to changes. As I said at the beginning, in the past 15 years, these changes were very significant. Until recently, for administrative reasons it was very difficult for us to move the officers for example from Greece to Spain. Having the corps of our own officers will allow us really to react according to the situation. We will not depend on the national restriction of any sorts. It will allow us to be much more proactive, able to respond much faster and much more efficiently at the external borders of the European Union.
ESD: What is the timeline for the corps to be created and to reach full operational capability?
Cooper: According to the regulation we have until 2027 to form this corps. While it only entered into force a month ago, we have already launched the recruitment of the first 700 officers. We have received 7500 applications, which is some 10 candidates per place. This is good and will help us select high quality personnel. The applicants not only come from border authorities, but also from the police, customs, emergency services, etc.
We’re currently finalising the shortlisting of the candidates. Obviously, they will have to undergo medical tests, psychological and language test. They have to be trained. We will deploy these first 700 officers to our operations on the 1st January next year.
ESD: How will this new capability change the way in which you deal with crises along EU’s external border?
Cooper: We will no longer merely react to crises when they occur. We will also be able to better predict them thanks to our risk analysis, our intelligence. We will be better able to respond to them as we will have more officers deployed permanently. Having our own officers will allow us to be much more flexible and self-sufficient in our operational response.
ESD: What about dealing with other challenges aside from illegal migration?
Cooper: Another important challenge is returns. I would like to stress that there is no question that the refugees, those who have to right to international protection or asylum, must be given such protection. However, not all the people who are coming to Europe are refugees. When the national judges decide that some individuals do not have sufficient grounds to remain on the territory of their country, they have to be returned back to their home countries. Frontex will be increasingly able to assist with the logistical side of returns.
I would like to stress that the return decision remains exclusively with the national courts or administrations. While Frontex cannot enter into the merit of such decisions, will are able to assist with such issues as the acquisition of travel documents, and transportation by air. We can cover the costs of their returns. Because of the new regulation, with Frontex we can also assist with voluntary flights, or flights on commercial flights.
ESD: Will Frontex, under the new regulation, deepen its relations and ties with non-EU countries in dealing with the broad range of challenges to the EU and Schengen area?
Cooper: Certainly, the cooperation with non-EU countries is of crucial importance. We are now able to run operations not only on the territory of the EU, but also on the territory of non-EU countries with whom the EU signed the status agreement. So far, we are coordinating such operation in Albania, this year we will look to the possibility of expanding it to other countries of the Western Balkans.
ESD: Will you also seek to enhance information and data sharing between particular EU member states, as well as non-EU actors?
Cooper: Sharing information in a timely manner is really crucial. If you think that maybe 20 years ago countries like Spain, Italy or Greece really knew mostly what was happening at their borders only, but had a rather limited knowledge of the situation in other countries. With Schengen, it is crucial that Greece knows, what’s happening in Spain. That Poland knows what latest methods of document forgery detected by German police, or Greece about the latest case of a child – trafficking attempt in France. Criminal networks will only be able to run a profitable business if they are one head ahead of law enforcement. If we only have one external border, we all have to be equally effective in preventing it. Frontex plays a big role in collecting and instantly sharing information about everything that happens at any external border in Europe among all border authorities of the EU member states.
But situational awareness is not everything: we also conduct risk analysis both on tactical and strategic level. This allows us to forecast what will happen in the future, so that we can plan our operational response accordingly.
The interview was conducted by Michał Jarocki.