25th Oct 2016

EU border agency keen to expand Mediterranean Sea surveillance

  • The EU border agency Frontex says it wants to improve the 'situational awareness' in the Mediterranean Sea (Photo: Flavius Belisarius)

Spanning some 2.5 million square kilometres, the Mediterranean Sea remains largely outside the surveillance scope of member states and the Warsaw-based EU border agency Frontex.

“We do not know at present what is going on in the Mediterranean Sea. We do not know, nor do the member states,” Edgar Beugels, head of research and development at Frontex, told reporters in Brussels on Monday (18 March).

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Beugels said the agency is looking at different technologies to increase the “situational awareness” of the EU’s external borders, including the use of drones or so-called remotely piloted aircraft (RPA).

“Remotely piloted aircraft is just one of the technologies we are looking into. At this moment we do not know if this is a technology that we could potentially give to the border guard community,” he noted.

The unmanned aircraft have the potential to fly for longer periods of time when compared to piloted planes.

Patrol aircraft have a four to five hour run time before having to return to refuel and for crew rest, explained Beugels. “Potentially, a remotely controlled aircraft can hang around for 12 hours and detect small boats where people are distress,” he said.

The EU agency says the cost effectiveness of RPAs is still relatively unknown and needs further study, however.

Meanwhile, the European Commission’s European border surveillance system, Eurosur, is set to launch in October.

The system is aimed to enhance the reaction capability of law enforcement services and provide better information of what is happening on the borders. It networks together member states and Frontex. It will not include personal data, says Beugels.

Frontex set up Eurosur’s communication network among participating member states.

The agency’s role in the system is limited but is to expand later to include obtaining and sharing information on a so-called "common pre-frontier intelligence picture [CPIP]."

“This is information that is coming from all kinds of sources like the Internet, open sources, from the member states some of which may have liaison officers in third countries,” said Beugels.

The agency deals with irregular migration flows and patterns but says it is open to flagging suspected criminal activities on the open seas as well.

“We are increasingly looking at what we called multi-purpose operations,” Izabella Cooper, Frontex’s spokeswoman, told reporters.

Cooper said Frontex is expanding its cooperation with other organisations and agencies like the Spanish-based European Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA).

The EFCA carries out inspections to ensure member states comply with the EU's Common Fisheries Policy.

But the Mediterranean is also one of the main routes used by drug runners to ship in cocaine and cannabis resin from west and north African states.

A Frontex co-ordinated operation that spots a speedboat heading towards Gibraltar from the north African coast, for example, would notify the Spanish authorities.

“If you are state authority, even if it is not your competence, you cannot just look the other way. You have the duty to inform the appropriate authority,” said Beugels.

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