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MIGRATION: Fortress Europe Starts With Greece

Apostolis Fotiadis

ATHENS, Jan 31 2010 (IPS) - When Michalis Chrisohoidis, Greek minister of citizens’ protection announced that FRONTEX, the European Agency for Border Control and Protection, would double its representation in this country in spring, it was clear that Greece is being charged with special responsibilities to apprehend and repatriate illegal migrants into Europe.

Speaking at a United Nations conference on security in the Mediterranean, last week, Chrisohoidis cited geography as one reason why Greece gets responsibility for border control, but said the measures would help both this country and the EU guarantee better security, while respecting the fundamental rights of what may be victims of smuggling rings.

Over the last year FRONTEX and Greek authorities have collaborated to establish a mechanism capable of detecting illegal immigration across the Aegean Sea and also deport migrants on repatriation flights.

FRONTEX, put in place in 2005 by the European Commission, is tasked with promoting a pan-European model of integrated border security, aimed at curbing irregular migrant influx into the EU which has skyrocketed during the last five years. FRONTEX started out with a budget of 6.2 million euros (8.5 million US dollars) annually, but this has now been raised to 83.2 million euros (115.3 million dollars) as it takes on more responsibilities.

Last year saw FRONTEX being upgraded into a mechanism responsible for the integration of operational cooperation along EU borders and for controlling illegal immigration into the Community.

Addressing the Committee on Civil Liberties of the European Parliament on Jan. 11, FRONTEX executive director Ikka Latinen said that in 2010 his agency aims to run an extended sea patrol network that will cover the whole southern naval flank of the EU from the Seychelles islands to the Aegean Sea.

FRONTEX spokesman Michal Parzyzek said Greece is hosting the largest operation that the agency has organised in its short history. “The ongoing Operation Poseidon taking place in the Aegean Sea is so far the biggest coordinated by FRONTEX [the operation has been extended through the first months of 2010] with a budget exceeding 10 million euros (13.8 million dollars).

Poseidon involves officers from 22 EU member states. The support given to Greek authorities focuses on surveillance capacities (aerial and naval means), identification of illegal migrants and assistance in obtaining travel documents for those persons that are to be repatriated.

FRONTEX itself does not own technical assets for border control nor does it have crew to navigate them, both are made available by individual member states on a voluntary basis. “The equipment used for joint operations is listed in the Centralised Record of Available Technical Equipment which the member states make available for the needs of a joint operation upon request of FRONTEX for limited period of time. Similarly, the member states provide experts according to the operation’s needs,” Parzyzek said.

At a conference in Hungary last October focusing on repatriations, Claus Dechert from FRONTEX said that in 2009 the agency was involved in 26 return operations to destinations including Nigeria, Kosovo and Albania, Georgia, Mongolia, Ecuador and Vietnam. Four more joint return operations were then pending before the end of the year. Greece has participated in three flights to Nigeria and one to Georgia.

So far there have been three different known types of joint return flights in which FRONTEX is involved as an a information sharing platform and a treasury of best practices:

– Direct arrangement between member states, when the organising member state asks the participants a set price per seat on the plane in order to share the costs.

– Community funding of joint return operation which can be co-financed by the Commission. In this case money comes from a separate fund called European Return Fund.

– FRONTEX co- finances Joint Return Operations; the co-financing modality started only at the end of 2008.

Decherd spoke also about a ‘Return Capacity Building’ project in Greece where the objective would be “to identify and organise return activities regarding illegally present third-country nationals in Greece by setting up a temporary ‘Return Coordination Centre’ in Athens.

Greek activists who requested anonymity told IPS that the operation on returns mentioned by Dechert was coded as ‘Project Attika’. The project’s existence was confirmed by FRONTEX over e-mail correspondence with IPS.

“In order to implement this project a temporary return co-ordination office was established within the Aliens Department of the Hellenic Police. The centre is composed of Greek officials, representatives of FRONTEX and experts on return matters deployed by the member states. The office assists Greek authorities in identification process / screening of nationalities claimed by migrants, defining returnable and non-returnable migrants in connection with the identification process, co-operation with detention centres and police stations, establishing contacts with third country embassies that are issuing travel documents for persons to be returned, organising returns by chartered or commercial flights and development of return-information flow between the office and the islands.”

That return operations are being run from the island of Samos at least since Dec. 12 became apparent when a local legal representative denounced FRONTEX officials for failing to coordinate with him before identifying the country of origin (a process widely described as ‘screening’) and forwarding 85 migrants to Athens for repatriation.

FRONTEX responded by saying that none of its personnel present in the country at the time was on operational duty. Moreover, it has underlined that “officers [return experts] from other member states perform their tasks and exercise powers under instructions from and, as a general rule, in the presence of Greek officers.”

Still three parliamentarians of the Communist Party of Greece, Stavros Skopelitis, Giannis Gkiokas and Vera Nikolaidou were reported in the party’s newspaper as saying that FRONTEX personnel were interviewing detained migrants in person. The fate of the 85 migrants is unknown.

A pro-migrant group ‘Solidarity to Refugees’ based in Samos claimed on Jan. 14 that another 24 migrants, including Afghanis and Iranians possibly fleeing persecution in Tehran, were denied access to legal counselling and have been tagged for deportation in an incident in which a FRONTEX official was involved.

The ministry of citizens’ protection (responsible for co-operating with FRONTEX) was informed that “Currently, FRONTEX dispatch in Greece is one immigration officer from the Dutch Marechausee deployed in Samos as of Jan. 5, 2010 until end of January 2010 and specialised in travel documents’ checks at seaports, as well as in interviewing and debriefing apprehended illegal immigrants.”

FRONTEX’s activities in the Aegean overlap with the implementation by the Greek government of a policy to establish advanced screening and detention centres around the country’s territory manned by specialised personnel.

Asked about flights leased and the measures to protect the rights of returnees, Parzyzek said: “FRONTEX doesn’t lease the planes – the leading country is responsible for that. On board a joint return flight the rules of the member state ‘owning’ the plane are applied.”

“In any case, whether people are handcuffed and how many guards should be present on the plane always depends on the risk assessment based on case-by-case analysis of the background of the people present on board the plane,’’ Parzyzek said.

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