Tuesday

13th Apr 2021

EU border agency keen to send back more Tunisians

  • Lampedusa: 22,000 people have come in the past three months. Just two or three a day are going back (Photo: Valentina Pop)

EU border agency Frontex is trying to put in place "as soon as possible" a new protocol with Tunisia on sending back irregular migrants, with the north African country so far taking back very few people from Italy.

Frontex chief Ilkka Laitinen told a groups of journalists in Brussels on Friday (9 April) that: "For the time being there have been no joint returns to Tunisia co-ordinated by Frontex, as we have no working arrangement with the relevant authority."

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Over 22,000 irregular migrants, mostly Tunisian citizens, have crossed the Mediterranean to the Italian island of Lampedusa since the fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. Italy says the new authorities in Tunisia are so far taking back just two to four people a day on commercial Tunisian airlines, not chartered flights.

Laitinen explained that if Frontex had an informal "working arrangement" with Tunis it could facilitate more repatriations and reimburse the costs of those flights to the Italian authorities.

He said the Warsaw-based agency already carries out some 50 such joint operations each year in other areas. Each operation sees up to 150 irregular migrants put on board a chartered Boeing 737 back home, amounting to about 2,000 people a year.

"This is easier said than done. The decisive ingredient is to have the green light from the local government. You can't just fly a plane to - let's say Nigeria - and land it there. Each migrant has to have a paper allowing him to be repatriated," he explained.

"Tunisians so far have been very critical on returns. They have only allowed very few migrants being flown back, and only on Tunisian airlines, no chartered flights … Our aim now is to get a working agreement with Tunisia as soon as possible. We only had contacts in multilateral fora so far, no direct bilateral ones."

Laitinen added that Frontex is ready to supplement the existing 'Hermes' operation in and around Lampedusa, adding more patrol boats and sending more experts to debrief new arrivals, if Italy requests it.

He plans to reassure Italy and Malta at an EU interior ministers at a meeting on Monday in Luxembourg that he "stands ready" to extend the operation to help them deal with the boatfuls of people coming from northern Africa.

He said the Frontex patrols are not an "armada" covering the whole Mediterranean Sea, with just five or six vessels involved.

EU interior ministers will also discuss changing the law which set up Frontex in order to beef-up its capabilities and extend its area of activity.

As things stand, Frontex does not have any personnel, ships or helicopters of its own to deploy in the field. Member states lend asset on a case-by-case basis, but often with caveats so that their boats can only be used at a creation time of year, in a certain region or for certain types of mission.

'Operational fist'

"We need our own 'operational fist' - ships, helicopters. If we had such assets, there wouldn't be any more need for bilateral negotiations with each country, with parliaments giving their approval and so on," Laitinen said.

The cost of Frontex would not go up because it already reimburses EU countries for borrowing their resources, he noted.

Laitinen also wants Frontex to get involved in "crime prevention."

He envisaged a system in which EU member states' national immigration officers debrief and screen migrants to identify suspected traffickers and terrorists. Frontex passes their personal data - such as names, physical descriptions, telephone numbers, past home addresses - to the EU's joint police agency, Europol, for investigation. And Europol hands over cases to the EU judicial body, Eurojust, for prosecution.

Laitinen said any new Frontex databases on suspicious people would not target normal irregular migrants but would focus on criminal activity only.

Frontex chief: 'about time' MEPs probe his agency

Some 14 MEPs have created a group to probe allegations of rights abuse by the EU's border agency Frontex. Its head, Fabrice Leggeri, welcomed its creation and said it "is about time".

Romania denies forcing migrant-boat back to Turkish waters

Romania's ministry of internal affairs wrote to Frontex claiming it did not engage in any illegal pushbacks of people on rubber boats into Turkish territorial waters. The country says it followed EU engagement rules and Greek orders.

LGBTI fears over new Polish member at EU institution

A letter sent to the European Economic and Social Committee by a group of cross-party MEPs fighting for LGBTi rights expresses fears that a recently-appointed Polish member may try to undermine those rights.

EU condemns Slovenian PM's harassment of journalist

Slovenia's populist prime minister Janez Janša attempted to discredit a Brussels reporter after she published a critical article about the state of media freedoms in the country. The European Commission condemned the PM's language - but refrained from naming him.

News in Brief

  1. US officials call for J&J vaccine pause over blood clots
  2. Putin refuses to talk about military build-up, Ukraine says
  3. EU bank to help Greece manage corona-recovery funds
  4. Johnson & Johnson vaccine deliveries to EU begin
  5. EU sanctions commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard
  6. UK opens investigation into ex-PM Cameron lobbying
  7. 'Significant differences' in EU-UK talks on Northern Ireland
  8. Bulgarian PM reveals price rise in new EU-BioNTech deal

Feature

Covid-hit homeless find Xmas relief at Brussels food centre

The Kamiano food distribution centre in Brussels is expecting 20 people every half hour on Christmas Day. For many, Kamiano is also more than that - a support system for those made homeless or impoverished.

Top court finds Hungary and Poland broke EU rules

EU tribunal said Hungary's legislation made it "virtually impossible" to make an asylum application. Restricting access to international protection procedure is a violation of EU rules.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersDigitalisation can help us pick up the green pace
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCOVID19 is a wake-up call in the fight against antibiotic resistance
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region can and should play a leading role in Europe’s digital development
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council to host EU webinars on energy, digitalisation and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market

Latest News

  1. How the pandemic became an EU goldmine for crime
  2. China responds to 'low-efficacy' vaccine fears
  3. Merkel party chiefs support Laschet's chancellor bid
  4. EU refuses to bail out Montenegro's China loan
  5. Industry lobby to 'co-decide' on nearly €10bn EU public money
  6. Why Ursula von der Leyen won't go
  7. Incorporating gender in trade policy to benefit all
  8. Does Italian regionalism actually work?

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us