• Around €21.5 million of Frontex's total budget of €89 million is used to support sea-border operations (Photo: Frontex)

EU border surveillance system not helping to save lives

14.05.14 @ 18:50

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
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BRUSSELS - Launched in December to help prevent boat migrants from drowning, the EU’s border surveillance system, Eurosur, has yet to deliver amid a sharp increase in the number of sea-crossing attempts.

“Unfortunately for the time-being, it [Eurosur] does not fulfil this service,” said Gil Aria Fernandez, deputy director at the EU’s border agency Frontex, in Brussels on Wednesday (14 May).

The Warsaw-based agency is tasked with analysing the “European situational picture” - information collected and inserted into the system by member states.

Eurosur is also set to accept satellite images in the near future, but will not offer any additional help when it comes to rescue missions, said Fernandez.

“This would not be even useful for preventing tragedies because the satellite images will be available to the border authorities hours or even days after,” he said.

42,000 unlawful EU border crossings detected

Data collected by the border agency noted detections in the first four months of 2014, in terms of unauthorised crossing attempts along the EU’s external border, have shot up three-fold when compared to the same period last year.

Fernandez described the increase as “drastic”. Some 42,000 detections were made from January to April.

Most happened out at sea (around 25,000) in the Mediterranean, with Italy’s naval brigade Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) reporting the majority of detections.

Fernandez, who deplored the recent the boat tragedies off the southern Italian coast, said border control is not a solution.

“Improving the situation to prevent causalities, to prevent people from sinking and drowning in the sea, will not be possible by border control, this is obvious,” he said.

Seventeen people perished off the southern Italian coastline on Monday. The day before that, another 40 drowned off the Libyan coast.

Fernandez said it was highly unlikely Eurosur was involved in either case. Instead, national authorities are pressing ahead with their own operations.

Italy and Spain upset

For Italy, this means Mare Nostrum, which has reportedly intercepted around 36,000 migrants and refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean over the past few months.

But Italian authorities complain they do not receive enough support from the EU. Italy’s interior minister Angelino Alfano on Tuesday threatened to release the migrants it intercepts to seek asylum in other member states in defiance of EU rules.

More than half of all asylum applications in Europe are already submitted to German and Swedish authorities. Germany alone accounts for 41 percent of all requests.

Frontex, for its part, is not involved with the Italian-led sea sweeps but works with them in two joint-operations in the south of Sicily and along the coastlines of Calabria and Puglia.

Spain had also in early March requested emergency EU funding, but the European Commission says it is still analysing the request.

Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s two north-African enclaves, have seen a 208 percent increase in the number people attempting to scale the fences from the Moroccan side.

Around 730 attempted to enter the enclaves in the first four months of 2013, compared to over 2,200 during the same period this year, according to Frontex.

Fernandez blamed the sharp increase on Morocco after Rabat stepped up coastal border controls, diverting the flows to the enclaves.

The European Commission, for its part, notes that the bulk of the migrants are fleeing conflicts and most likely qualify for international protection.

“They are the most vulnerable individuals in the most difficult of positions, unfortunately they are also vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers,” said EU home affairs spokesperson Michele Cercone.

Migrants fleeing conflict

Frontex data confirms the commission assessment.

Around 7,400 Syrians were detected trying to get into the EU via the Aegean sea, the land border with Turkey, and Libya in this year alone.

The number of Eritreans has also shot up, due in part, to toughened Israeli immigration laws enacted earlier this year.

“This country [Israel] that used to the preferred option for Eritrean migrants is not now anymore possible for them,” said Fernandez.

Israel’s new rules means other Horn of Africa nationals like Somalis and Ethiopians are likely to see the EU as a better alternative, he noted.

Most who attempt the sea crossings start from areas near and around Libya’s capital Tripoli.

Syrian refugees and African migrants are drawn to the troubled nation, wrecked by internal power struggles, because it offers the shortest distance to Italian waters.

People inside the country have told Frontex that a large number of migrants and refugees are stranded.

Increased instability in Libya is likely to force many to seek any opportunity to leave for the EU.

Libya’s interim minister of internal affairs threatened to send all its stranded migrants over unless the EU offers up cash.

“If this threat were to become a reality, the situation would obviously worsen,” said Fernandez.

The agency has no contact with the Libyan authorities.