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."

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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.

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