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16th Jul 2018

Frontex naval operation to look for 'foreign fighters'

  • Themis, the EU's naval operation under Frontex, wants to stop alleged terrorists from reach mainland Europe. (Photo: Frontex)

The EU border and coast guard agency Frontex is stepping up intelligence gathering of migrants plucked from the sea following the launch of a new Central Mediterranean naval operation.

On Thursday (1 February), it launched its Themis mission, geared towards cracking down on alleged terrorist suspects and criminals. Vessels will still perform search and rescue, when required.

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But its redoubled security-centric mandate marks a departure from previous Frontex naval operations, and exposes a broader EU refocussing on people rescued at sea as potential threats.

A spokeswoman at the Warsaw-based agency told EUobserver in an email that operation Themis will have a "significant security component".

She noted that this includes "the collection of intelligence and other steps aimed at detecting foreign fighters and other terrorist threats at the external borders."

Information gathered by Frontex-deployed officers in Themis will be passed on to the Italian authorities and to the EU's police agency, Europol.

Themis' operational zone spans the Central Mediterranean, covering inward flows from Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Turkey and Albania. That now includes the Adriatic Sea given the drug routes coming in from Albania.

Some researchers suspect that the renewed emphasis on stemming flows of people from places like Libya is triggering an anti-smuggling business to emerge.

A joint-report out Thursday by the Institute for Security Studies and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime says Libyan militia leaders "are attempting to launder their reputations by accepting incentives to serve as law enforcement partners of international donors."

Law enforcement

The agency's boss Fabrice Leggeri last week said Frontex should be viewed as a law enforcement agency so it wouldn't have to stick to the privacy rules when it comes to sharing the personal data of people.

"When it comes to data which are relevant to criminal investigations or may feed some intelligence agencies in member states, indirectly, then I think we need to be considered as a law enforcement agency," he told MEPs in the terrorism committee.

Frontex already passes on details of people to the EU's police agency, Europol. Last year, it handed over some 1,300 'packets' of intelligence to the Hague-based agency.

"Who would have imagined three years ago that an agency like Frontex collects personal data, transmits it to Europol, and to the state police services to carry out investigations and do what they need to do to prevent attacks," said Leggeri.

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The UN migration agency (IOM) had planned to help return and reintegrate 5,000 people from Libya to their home countries, but ended up aiding 20,000 in 2017. The extra demand has piled on the pressure.

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