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29th Jan 2023

Frontex ends Lithuania border surveillance operation

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The EU border agency Frontex will end border surveillance operations in Lithuania — and has implied a desire to return to Hungary.

The Warsaw-based agency's acting executive director Aija Kalnāja told MEPs on Tuesday (12 July) that it will no longer help Vilnius with border surveillance.

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"As from tomorrow (13 July), we will not be participating or supporting Lithuania with the border surveillance," she said.

The move follows a ruling by the European Court of Justice against Lithuania in late June.

The court faulted Lithuania's legislation, which allowed for mass detention and stymied asylum requests. The case primarily dealt with migrants trying to enter Lithuania irregularly from Belarus in November 2021.

But Kalnāja said the withdrawal decision was not linked to the court ruling, noting the plan to stop border surveillance operations in Lithuania had been made prior to its publication.

"We need to shift personnel from quieter areas to the Central Med," she said instead.

She also said Frontex would retain an operational footprint in Lithuania, noting agents will still be working border checks.

And the agency's press services said it was a request by the Lithuanians to reduce the number of Frontex officers deployed in the country as the situation at the border with Belarus has stabilised.

There are currently 18 Frontex officers working at Lithuania's external borders, performing first and second line border check activities and cross-border crime detection, it said.

Amnesty International, an NGO, says Lithuania had arbitrarily detained thousands of people in militarised centres.

Some were tortured, they said.

The agency's fundamental rights officer, Jonas Grimheden, said they had flagged the abuse in Lithuania last autumn and then again earlier this year.

He said the agency failed to act on it.

"We could have avoided a lot of problems in Lithuania, if the agency would have acted on the opinion from back then," he said.

Hungary. More Frontex?

Kalnāja and Grimheden are also proposing the agency get more involved in EU states where violations are taking place.

The agency had in early 2020 pulled out most of its operations from Hungary, following an EU court judgement.

The agency's rule book cites article 46 as justification to suspend operations should such violations take place, which Frontex had triggered in Hungary.

But Kalnāja and Grimheden are now proposing a so-called "reverse article 46".

It means Frontex would shore up its agents in the offending EU state, instead of pulling out or suspending operations.

"Reversed article 46 would be much better from the fundamental rights perspective," said Grimheden.

He said a larger Frontex presence could help ensure fundamental rights violations don't take place.

Kalnāja echoed Grimheden, noting a significant increase in the migration pressure on Hungarian borders.

"We are absolutely relying on the reports of Hungarian counterparts," she said.

She said the agency cannot monitor what is happening in Hungary, noting some 3,000 weekly incidents of irregular arrivals on its borders.

But Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik shed doubt on sending in more Frontex agents.

"So far, we did not see that more Frontex involvement has led to less violations," she said and demanded Kalnāja substantiate the claim.

"My gut feeling says yes, it actually does deliver," countered Kalnāja.

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Aija Kalnaja took over Frontex as a caretaker after its executive director Fabrice Leggeri resigned last month. On Monday, she promised more transparency and better management of the Warsaw-based agency.

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