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16th Nov 2018

Frontex to get budget hike after refugee failures

  • According to the plan, Frontex will screen and debrief refugees and migrants. (Photo: Frontex)

Frontex, the EU's external border agency, is being given a 54 percent budget rise next year as part of a new European Commission package of initiatives to tackle the continent's refugee and migrant crisis.

Frontex executive director Fabrice Leggeri disclosed the agency's budget uplift, which will reach €176 million in 2016, at a House of Lords committee hearing in Westminster on Wednesday (16 September). The agency is also being allowed to increase its headquarter staffing levels in Warsaw from 304 to about 340.

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  • Data protection issues means personal details of suspected people smugglers cannot at present be shared between Frontex and Europol. (Photo: Frontex)

Its budget at the start of this year was €114 million, although it received an extra €27 million in emergency funds in April.

Leggeri told the Lords home affairs committee members that more money would allow the agency to strengthen its work with European organisations such as Europol in returning illegal migrants, providing safe passage for genuine refugees and disrupting people-smuggling rings.

And in what has the potential to spark security fears for European countries, he also said some countries experiencing huge flows of refugees and migrants are still not always taking fingerprints as part of the asylum screening process.

It would mean that many refugees and migrants may be difficult to track and threatens to undermine the Dublin convention that tries to ensure people make only one asylum claim throughout the EU.

New fingerprinting technology

The situation has forced Frontex to develop new fingerprint processing technology with the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Eurodac, the system that establishes an EU asylum fingerprint database.

He said once the technology was ready, it would be used to help provide support to member states in their screening processes. He said there had been "some shortcomings" about fingerprinting in this regard in a number of unspecified countries.

"There is a need to strengthen the agency," Leggeri told UK peers. "We need an enhanced integrated border management."

At the House of Lords' EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee, Leggeri described how Frontex is to be part of a coordinated effort featuring a host of EU organisations aiming to create safe routes to Europe for genuine asylum seekers as well as swiftly returning people back to their countries of origin.

The agencies will include Europol, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and European Union Naval Force Atalanta (EU Navfor) which will form an EU Regional Task Force and will support and work with countries experiencing huge influxes of refugees and migrants.

According to the plan, Frontex will screen and debrief refugees and migrants. Those considered eligible for asylum will be passed to EASO. Information on suspected people-smuggling rings will be passed to Europol.

The plan builds on a determination by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, expressed at his State of the Union address last week, "to manage the refugee crisis" after months in which Europe has failed to agree a coherent response.

An EU "hotspot" pilot scheme involving Frontex, EASO, EU Navfor and Europol in Catania, Sicily, currently screens and interrogates refugees and migrants alongside Italian authorities. Information on people-smuggling networks are quickly shared, Leggeri told the Lords committee.

Data sharing with Europol

But data protection issues means personal details of suspected people-smugglers cannot at present be shared between Frontex and Europol. Leggeri said that Giovanni Buttarelli, the European Data Protection Supervisor, has agreed the principles of personal data-sharing between the two agencies and that Buttarelli may grant full permission by the end of the year.

The hotspots – there are plans for ones in Greece and possibly Hungary as well – could also be used as bases for illegal migrants to be sent back to their country of origin. This is an area in which Frontex's powers are set to increase, with new Commission proposals due to be published by the year end.

Dana Spinant, the head of the European Commission's irregular migration and return policy unit, was also at the Lords committee. She told the hearing: "We’re looking at expanding (Frontex's) legal mandate to substantially scale up its support to member states in carrying out returns."

Leggeri emphasised the need for gathering intelligence on and from each migrant from the outset. He said: "Screening of migrants can be used to (establish) what is the nationality of the migrant. This is extremely important to do it immediately right on arrival at the external border so then we can start the negotiation with the country of origin to get the travel documents because to return migrants we need the travel document."

There has been a significant shift in how Frontex both combats people traffickers and processes the details of refugees and migrants entering Europe in recent months, Leggeri also told Lords' committee members.

Previously, information was initially shared with host country agencies, but now the priority is ensuring EU agencies act together in a coordinated way alongside member states.

Frontex and other EU agencies will also work with Turkey and countries in north Africa such as Tunisia and Egypt, in an effort to prevent refugees and migrants travelling to Europe.

At present such initiatives are impossible in Libya – where thousands of migrants are sailing to Italy – because the security situation is too unstable, the Frontex chief said.

Mandatory Frontex contributions

Frontex, which is responsible for coordinating the management of Europe's external borders, neither directly owns surveillance planes, patrol vehicles and vessels, nor employs its own border guards.

Instead, it relies on member states to release to it equipment and personnel in return for reimbursements by the agency.

Despite an emergency increase in Frontex's budget, it was still short of border guards on the Greek islands, the land border between Greece and Turkey, in Hungary and also Bulgaria.

EU Commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, last month wrote to interior ministers throughout Europe, urging them to co-operate with Frontex appeals after the agency requested his intervention.

Leggeri played down statements from senior Frontex officials that his agency needed more border guards in key locations. But the Frontex boss did raise the possibility of member states being forced by the EU to release assets to his agency.

"In the future one could imagine to enhance the possibility for the EU to use Frontex deployments to encourage mandatory contributions from member states to Frontex operations," he told MEPs.

This week will see crucial meetings in Brussels (22-23 September) that will go a long way in determining Europe's response to the refugee crisis.

European leaders have been summoned to an emergency meeting in Brussels to agree how many refugees they will take from Italy, Greece and Hungary, as well as discussing external border policy following the recent reintroduction of border controls by several countries.

Also on Wednesday, MEPs will grill a wide number of EU agencies, including representatives from Frontex and EASO, over how they are working together to secure safe passages for genuine refugees and return migrants.

This report is part of a larger investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based at City University London. The Bureau works in collaboration with other groups to get its investigations published and distributed

Investigation

Frontex resource limitations put agency in straitjacket

The EU border agency has the potential to police Europe's borders, save lives and reduce human trafficking, but lack of means and political will reduces it to a resource-poor coordinating agency, says a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Frontex in dire need of border guards

Europe's border agency is understaffed on the Greek islands and EU borders with Turkey and Serbia, while EU member states haven't delivered on guards and equipment requests.

Frontex double counts migrants entering EU

The EU's border agency said on Tuesday that 710,000 people were detected crossing into the EU in the first nine months of this year, but failed to disclose that it double counts.

Magazine

Frontex puts down roots in Poland

Frontex, the EU border and coastguard agency, will grow three-fold in five years. It will build a new office in the Polish capital despite rising tensions over migration policy between Warsaw and Brussels.

New EU border force: 'right to intervene'

New EU border force, to be proposed Tuesday, would have “right to intervene” if member states fail to protect external boundaries, a draft text, seen by EUobserver, says.

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