A step in the right direction: Frontex, Greece & the fight against irregular migration

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU's border management agency, Frontex, will open its first Operational Office in Piraeus, Greece on 1 August 2010. Although political and administrative gaps remain, the new office should enhance Frontex's role in South-Eastern Europe and help combat illegal migration in the Mediterranean, write Stavros Kourtalis and Gerasimos Tsourapas, researchers at the Hellenic Centre for European Studies (EKEM), in an exclusive commentary for EURACTIV.

The following commentary was sent exclusively to EURACTIV by EKEM.

''In the European Union's [EU] latest effort to deal a blow to irregular migration across its southern borders, Frontex (established in 2005 as the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union) will inaugurate its first Operational Office in Piraeus, Greece, on 1 August 2010.

Centrally located in Greece's largest seaport and one of South-East Europe's major transport hubs, the new Piraeus Operational Office will be in charge of coordinating Frontex's actions across Eastern Mediterranean countries (Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Malta), as was decided at a Madrid EU summit in May 2009.

Neither the decision to add to Frontex's institutional capacities nor the particular choice of Piraeus should come as a surprise; since as early as 1999, at the European Council meeting in Tampere, Finland, the EU has striven to develop a proactive migration policy, of which the fight against irregular migration constitutes a central pillar.

Two years ago, based upon the 2004 Hague programme that had aimed for the creation of a common EU immigration and asylum policy, the Council of Ministers adopted the so-called 'Return Directive', standardising procedures regulating the return of illegally staying third-country nationals. More recently, in May 2009, the European Parliament adopted a directive on imposing sanctions for employers who hire irregular migrants.                                        

The choice of Frontex's Operational Office location also makes perfect sense, given that the latest Frontex Annual Risk Analysis argues that, by 2010, 75% of total illegal EU border crossings take place through Greece.

In fact, it has been argued that tackling the 'Eastern Mediterranean' route (crossing Turkey to eastern Greece, southern Bulgaria or Cyprus) constitutes one of the Agency's top priorities, given that migration waves have slowed down in the two other major routes, the Central Mediterranean (Northern Africa to Italy and Malta) and Western African (Western African countries to Spain via the Canary Islands) ones.

To what extent does the inauguration of a new Operational Office in Greece merit optimism in the fight against irregular migration? On the one hand, the numbers seem to agree that the new Office will most likely augment Frontex's already successful role: according to its Deputy Executive Director Gil Arias-Fernandez, a 33% reduction in total illegal entry detentions (from 166,000 to 106,000) has already been registered.

A drop also took place in terms of sea border arrests between Greece and Turkey, from 56,000 (in 2008) to 49,000 (in 2009). Land border arrests between the two countries were also decreased, from 14,000 to 10,000 under the same time period.

Across the Mediterranean basin, a number of bilateral agreements (such as the one signed between Italy and Libya, Spain and Senegal, and so on) have also helped stem the tide of arrivals: in West Africa, only five detentions took place in the first three months of 2010, as opposed to a staggering 31,700 detentions during 2006.

The above numbers, however, hide the much more sober picture of immigration waves in South-Eastern Europe: the absence of a working agreement on immigration prevention and control between Greece and Turkey (only recently have political steps been taken towards the activation of the 2001 bilateral Re-Admission Protocol) has helped encourage Eastern Mediterranean immigration as other routes have been more effectively patrolled.

European NGOs continue to lament the lack of reliable quantitative data on irregular immigration, which, in turn, help promote unfounded stories on 'floods of illegal immigrants', on the loss of jobs to immigrants, or on exorbitantly heavy strains on public services. At the same time, Frontex has been frequently confronted with accusations of human rights violations, especially in its treatment of asylum seekers who attempt to enter the EU.

The creation of a new Operational Office in Piraeus and the strengthening of Frontex in general needs, thus, to be accompanied by a number of other political efforts, both on the national and the European level that would enable the Agency to acquire the enhanced role it seeks.

Firstly, the European Commission should work closely with national policymakers towards the creation of standardised databases on migration across the continent, in the hope of generating more reliable estimates. A more accurate numerical portrayal of irregular migration in Europe would also aid in the visibility of Frontex's efforts and, in the long term, in increased social awareness across the EU member states.

Lastly, the positive effects that bilateral readmission agreements between EU member states and neighbouring countries have had on curbing migration waves suggest that such agreements should continue being forged between countries of origin (such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, etc.) and EU countries of transit.

All things considered, the new Operational Office should, indeed, be considered a significant step in enhancing Frontex's role in South-Eastern Europe and dealing a significant blow to irregular migration in the Mediterranean. At the same time, however, it should serve to remind us of the political and administrative gaps that remain to be bridged, before we can truly talk of an efficient, proactive, pan-European immigration strategy.''

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