'The Situation is Escalating': Europe's Frontex Border Guard Stretched to Limit

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Frontex, the European Union's border protection agency, is demanding more money and equipment to seal off Europe's borders to refugees. Agency director Ilkka Laitinen believes the refugee numbers could continue to rise as political unrest escalates in North Africa and the Middle East.

A police officer with the European border protection agency Frontex stands near the frontier between Greece and Turkey in November. Zoom
AP

A police officer with the European border protection agency Frontex stands near the frontier between Greece and Turkey in November.

The Operations Center of the European border security agency Frontex is situated in a windowless room on the 23rd floor of a high-rise building in the center of Warsaw. A single Polish border security agent stares at two monitors.

This week all missions to protect the European Union against refugees from North Africa in the Mediterranean are being monitored from this office. An electronic map still shows the area between Greece and Turkey where Frontex border guards have been operating since November. The number of illegal border crossings there has decreased dramatically -- from around 250 to around 100 refugees a day.

The 280 staff at Frontex Central are working under intense pressure to deliver everything required for the Mediterranean mission. Frontex has no ships or helicopters, and it has to beg EU member states for border police.

Building a Real Border Security Force for Europe

"It is quite difficult to negotiate with 27 governments in emergency situations," says Ilkka Laitinen. The 48-year-old has been the director of Frontex since 2005. "Countries impose all sorts of conditions when we want technology and equipment." Laitinen is actively campaigning to build Frontex into a real border security force. The project is currently stuck in negotiations between the European Council, the powerful body headed by the leaders of the EU member states, and the European Parliament.

Despite this, the Finn is optimistic that he can get the mission up and running. The brigadier general says Joint Operation Hermes has already been planned for summer, when the majority of refugee boats make their sea crossings. But there is still a shortage of reconnaissance aircraft, especially.

Their main job will consist of returning most of the refugees to their home countries. Only "very few" of the 5,000 Tunisians who fled to Lampedusa filed an application for asylum. "We return everyone who does not have the right to stay in the EU," says Laitinen.

During a meeting on this situation on this particular morning, his experts come to the conclusion that the flight of the 5,000 had been planned for a long time. "Twenty human traffickers have already been arrested," says Laitinen. "They had just been waiting for the right opportunity."

The European Home Affairs Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, is demanding that, in the case of large waves of refugees like in Lampedusa, the people be distributed among EU member countries. But in Germany, this plea has been rejected by Chancellor Angela Merkel. Laitinen says that if the southern EU countries continue to have to bear the brunt of responsibility for asylum cases, then they will need more Frontex assistance.

He is not ruling out an influx of more refugees from North Africa. "The situation in the Arab states has escalated in an extremely short time," says the border protection chief.

According to Laitinen, it is important that the EU now assists Tunisia in its transition to democracy -- the situation cannot be managed through border controls alone. "If people want to come, then they will manage it somehow," says Laitinen. "We cannot shoot them."

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