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24th Jul 2021

EU border chief wants protection from armed smugglers

The EU’s border agency Frontex wants military protection from armed migrant smugglers as it expands operations in the Mediterranean and closer to the Libyan coast.

Two incidents in February and April saw smugglers brandish their Kalashnikov rifles at boarder guards and migrants during the agency's Triton surveillance mission.

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  • Traffickers operate with impunity in war-torn Libya (Photo: AslanMedia)

Fabrice Leggeri, who heads the Warsaw-based agency, told reporters in Brussels on Thursday (28 May) that the incidents were provoked when boarder guards attempted to seize the boats used by the migrants.

“The incidents that happened in February and April were in fact incidents because the smugglers wanted to get back the boats that the border guard wanted to seize,” he said.

Leggeri noted that the incident in February involved some 300 migrants who had already boarded the Triton ship.

“If you have 300 migrants on board and there is a shooting, then anything can happen,” he said.

The warning comes as the EU plans to launch next month EU Navfor Med, a naval assault against migrant smugglers.

The military campaign, separate but linked to Frontex, wants to seize and sink the boats as part of a larger effort to undercut the smugglers “business model”.

Documents prepared by the EU’s foreign policy service on the naval assault say there is “a high risk of collateral damage including the loss of life”.

Asked if the armed naval presence may escalate tensions and further endanger the lives of migrants and civilians on board Triton, Leggeri said “it is difficult to assess military action in the Libyan waters”.

Instead, he noted that the February and April incidents did not result in any death because the boarder guards opted not to engage.

Don't shoot

“It seemed the wisest reaction was not to shoot and not react because otherwise we might have causalities on board,” he said.

But the real risk of death and other possible disasters is a headache for EU policy-makers.

EU defence ministers in a leaked document from last week noted “a risk to EU reputation” if “loss of life be attributed, correctly or incorrectly, to action or inaction by the EU force”.

There is no clear line yet on who will protect Triton but Leggeri said it will depend on the daily management of the operation.

It is also not yet clear if the military boats will disembark migrants onto Triton vessels at sea or bring them ashore in Italy.

In either case, Frontex is setting up a regional base in Sicily where teams will help locals try to identify the disembarked migrants.

Frontex gets bigger

Meanwhile, Frontex has seen its mandate, staff and budget increase since some 800 migrants drowned last April. The agency can now, for instance, organise joint-return flights for any migrant that has no chance of getting asylum.

The 800 drownings sparked an emergency meeting of defence and foreign ministers and a ten-point action plan from the European Commission, followed by an EU summit in late April.

The result means some €26 million extra will be pumped into the Frontex budget for 2015 alone.

The cash will back Triton Mediterranean operations as well as Poseidon along the borders with Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria.

Frontex will get another €45 million in 2016 for its Mediterranean operations.

“This means a huge increase in budget,” said Leggeri.

It will also operate up to 80 nautical miles from the Libyan coast but is likely to approach much closer whenever called to rescue boat migrants. Most rescues take place between 30 to 40 nautical miles from the coast.

The sea mission now has four aircraft, six offshore patrol vessels, 12 patrol boats, two helicopters, nine debriefing teams, and six screening teams.

Last year, some 170,000 people crossed from Libya into Italy on the so-called central Mediterranean route. Around 70,000 of those were either Syrians or Eritrean nationals fleeing war and persecution.

Both nationalities, if they reach the European shores alive, have an over 70 percent high chance of obtaining asylum.

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