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EU External Border Management and the Current Situation in Italy and Greece: an Overview

November 19, 2016


By Elisa Sguaitamatti

Migration is a defining issue for Europe and its institutions and it is likely to remain so for a long time. According to the International Organisation for Migration, as of 19 October 2016, 340,972 migrants have arrived in Europe since the beginning of 2016, either by land or by sea. If we take a closer look at the issue, we can certainly note different and various waves of migration, both in scale and in scope.

The first type of migration is due to safety and security reasons, and it mainly includes Middle East and North Africa, bringing an influx of refugees of mostly Muslim origin escaping from war-ravaged countries, unstable or failed states. Another form of migration is caused by a mix of economic and climate reasons, encompassing most of Africa. Millions are fleeing their homelands due to precarious political conditions or natural calamities such as drought and famine. By leaving the continent they are generating a slow but steady flow towards Europe.

The current debate suggests that we are facing unprecedented flows of migration. Although it is undeniable that we are experiencing a rare intensity in inflows in a very short span of time, the truth is that migration is – and has always been – a global and systemic phenomenon, hence it is nothing new especially in the case of European history.

Statistical Increases and Worsening Regional Conditions

What is striking and very different from the past is the involvement of many Central and Eastern EU Member States. All of them were caught off guard and therefore struggled to manage the emergency from the onset, which soon became a migration crisis. Moreover, a new aspect is the regional nature of migration routes. These entail entire regions of Southern Europe reached either by land (the Balkans and Turkey) or by sea (the Adriatic, Aegean and Mediterranean Seas).

Currently, it looks like numbers are increasing in absolute terms as mixed migratory flows continue relentlessly. Based on UNHCR data, nowadays 65.3 million people are forced from their homes, 21.3 million are refugees of whom over half is under the age of 18, plus another 10 million of individuals considered ‘stateless.’ Additionally, displaced populations experience other displacements owing to the deterioration of the quality of asylum and the incapacity of states to provide essential services. Figures are growing at a much faster pace because of the fragmentation and the derailment of the whole Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan Africa region. In particular, in the Middle East we are witnessing an unprecedented number of simultaneous crises.

Terrorism Concerns

Another hot topic is that of terrorism which is nothing new but now, much more than in the past, poses a threat to security, to the values of democracy and the rights and freedom of all European citizens. The European Council recently declared that between 2009 and 2013 there were 1,010 attacks (either failed or successful) in EU Members States. As more migrants of Muslim origin come to Europe, the alarmism over potential attacks in European cities has skyrocketed, spreading fears that terrorists can be mistaken for migrants or refugees when disembarking in external border countries.

Also, the terrorism threat in Europe has been often linked to the failure of past integration and social inclusion policies targeting different cultural groups. In particular, Muslims of the second and third generation are experiencing an identity dilemma, as they feel they belong neither to their country of origin, nor can they identify with the European values of their adopted country. Therefore, in many analysts’ opinion, they resort to violence and terrorist acts as it is – in their eyes – the only way to take out their frustration and disappointment.

Recent To Secure EU External Borders at a European Level

As one of the main areas of focus for the EU to stay alive is its external borders, external action is a key component of the EU strategy to handle the migration challenge while the main drivers of flows are here to stay. The short term imperatives are saving lives, breaking the business of smugglers and controlling irregular flows. On the other hand, the long-term objective is to develop structural actions that help states better manage migration in all aspects rather than work on crisis situations.

Ever since June 2016, the EU has been working on a comprehensive multi-layered strategy to enhance security in Europe in the fight against terrorism and strengthening of external borders. In detail, a European coordination and cooperation plan aimed at improving shared border management and rescue operations at sea and in the main ports of the South Mediterranean. Secondly is a new international plan building on the European Agenda on Migration, namely the Partnership Framework, which includes the long-neglected African countries for the first time.

In this way, African partners are not only part of the problem but they can become part of the solution too, in the EU’s thinking. The goal is to frame relations through “compacts”, tailor-made deals. Finally, looking beyond the emergency relocation scheme, a further and thorough plan is needed to help external border states such as Italy and Greece. This refers to the support of EU agencies providing expertise, advice and physical backing too.

Moreover, the Commission called for the reinforcement of Europol’s counter-terrorism capabilities so that it will become an intelligence hub for dismantling criminal networks along the Southern Mediterranean route. Europol’s Operational Centre comprises operational teams from the European Counter Terrorism Centre, the Cybercrime Centre, the Migrant Smuggling Centre, as well as the Internet Referral Unit (IRU) and national liaison bureaus.

EU Actions and Efforts in the Mediterranean Sea

As far as rescue and emergency operations at sea are concerned, in 2016 the European Union has tripled its presence in the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea. The Frontex Operations Triton and Poseidon, as well as Operation Sophia, have saved over 400,000 lives since the beginning of 2015, and disrupted smugglers’ and traffickers’ networks. To further reinforce and enhance external border management, in September 2016 the EU Commission presented three innovative mechanisms. The first one is an accelerated process in handling rescue operations and identity and security checks thanks to the European Border and Coast Guard; then, for the longer term, the implementation of a EU Entry-Exit System and the European Travel Information and Authorisation System.

The European Border and Coast Guard

During the State of the Union Address in September 2016, EU Commission President Juncker stated that Europe will defend borders with the new European Border and Coast Guard, legally operational as of 6 October -just 9 months after the formal proposal- thanks to the common joint effort of Member States and EU institutions.

The decision to create a new EU border management agency came after the acknowledgement of the shortcomings of the former EU border agency, Frontex, which so far has limited its field of activity. Among these are the fragmentation of the effort, the lack of consistency in border control and resources as well as shortfalls in the staff. Frontex has always relied on Member States contributions and staff, and could only act for returns and border management operations after the formal request of a Member State. Despite all this, Frontex (in its new Agency form) is still crucial to restore border management, especially in Italy and Greece. At the moment 700 Frontex officers are deployed in Greece, 177 in Bulgaria, 514 in Italy and 152 in the Western Balkans.

On the other hand, the new agency will ensure shared management of EU external borders based on EU standards, proper identity and security checks, addressing emergencies in hotspots as well as carrying out monthly risk analyses and compulsory vulnerability assessments. The European Border and Coast Guard can count on a reserve pool of people and equipment. It will have, for the first time, rapid response capacity on a permanent footing – at least 1,500 border guards and technical equipment in order to deploy them in a timely manner. One important aspect of innovation is the fact that it will be tasked to intervene directly on the territory of a Member State, even without its request. It will have a mandate to envoy liaison officers and launch operation with neighbouring countries too.

In an effort to prevent and detect cross-border crime such as migrant smuggling, trafficking in human beings and terrorism, the Coast Guard will be also able to collect specific information -vehicle identification numbers, telephone numbers or ship identification numbers- to analyse migrant routes and methods. Precious information will be shared with the authorities of EU Member States and Europol, working closely to launch investigations.

The EU Entry-exit System

The EU entry-exit system (EES) was proposed by the Commission on 6 April 2016 even though it is likely to become fully operational only in 2020. This mechanism would improve the management of the external borders and reduce the amount of irregular immigration to Europe. Hence, it will directly contribute to the fight against terrorism and serious crime within the EU in two ways: dealing with visa oversharing and collecting particular figures, travel document and biometrics to register non-EU citizens having a 90-day permit for entering or exiting the Schengen area.

The European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS)

The European Travel Information and Authorisation System would offer a great deal of control over visa exempt travellers as it would be able to determine the eligibility of all visa-exempt third country nationals to travel to the Schengen area regularly based on pre-established criteria.

Operation Sophia/ EUNAVFOR Med in the Mediterranean Sea

As a consequence of the terrible migrant shipwreck off Libya in April 2015, the EU launched the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med), also known as Operation Sophia, to conduct surveillance and interdict refugee smuggling routes in the Mediterranean. The military operation EUNAVFOR Med consists of three phases: surveillance and assessment of human smuggling and trafficking networks; search and diversion of suspicious vessels, finally the disposal of boats to stop traffickers and smugglers. More than 13,000 migrants have been rescued from the sea in the course of the Operation. In June 2016, the Council of the European Union extended Operation Sophia’s mandate by adding two tasks: the training of the Libyan coastguards and navy as well as the implementation of UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya.

Recent European Initiatives with ‘Third Countries’: a New Partnership Framework

In June 2016, the Commission made a proposal for a new Partnership Framework aimed at deepening cooperation – for the first time – with non-EU member countries of origin, transit and destination. In the long term, this will mean adopting a concerted approach for investments in tackling the root causes of migration, and promoting sustainable development and stability. This of course entails a specific partnership with each third county as different are the political, economic and social contexts.

A key element of this Framework is the change of approach of the EU in addressing the migration issue by introducing the concept of “compacts”. These compacts are a political framework for guaranteed operational cooperation to develop a comprehensive partnership with third parties. It provides African states with instruments, tools and leverages in an effort to deliver clear and full commitment. The real novelty of the compact approach is that it bypasses the long technical negotiations that normally occur before a formal agreement and it offers a tailor-made delivery instead. As the understanding of mutually beneficial elements in migration management with each state grows, new compacts will be operationalised. These “packages” will then represent the driving force for the delivery of already agreed common objectives.

This mechanism needs a joint EU approach to be successful, which involves political engagement as well as practical support to third countries. This mechanism also requires a real understanding of EU and African countries interests so that interests and priorities can be used to work on mutual benefits. To this end, EU took the first step identifying Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and Ethiopia as priority African states in need of compacts. After months of major political and diplomatic efforts, Niger has taken action to fight against migrant smuggling and has set up a framework to manage migration dialogue with the EU. Strengthened operational efforts and cooperation are now happening in Senegal and Mali, especially as the identification of smugglers and standard operating procedures are concerned. Nigeria, the most populous African country now facing security and terrorism threats, is now negotiating a readmission agreement with the EU.

The first results can now be seen in a new momentum in the dialogue between the EU and its partners as well as in the progress made on return and readmissions, unblocking cases where returns were not possible because of a lack of staff trained for these missions. Standard operating procedures for identification and return are about to come into force, and EU financial assistance and targeted support is being deployed to help communities where migration and smuggling is common to try and address delicate issues. A further contribution has come from EU Member States which recruited European migration liaison officers to be posted in key third countries- acting as contact points to cooperate with EU partners and work for the delivery of more tangible results.

European External Investment Plan

In September 2016, the Commission presented a new External Investment Plan – a newly-created approach focused on EU support to sustainable development, inclusive growth, social development and regional integration mainly outside Europe. At the same time, this Plan is going to address the root causes of migration right in the countries of origin to specifically stop the flow of economic migrants. This plan will work on job creation, sustainable employment, investment opportunities in the partner countries and will be finalised before the end of 2016, most likely in December.

Efforts at the National Level: the Italian Case

As an external border country, lately Italy has come up with some proposals to handle the migration crisis. Italy has long been calling for the involvement of the whole international community in managing the migratory phenomenon, as it has been on the front line of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean for years, with its search and rescue operations, saving more than 75,000 people in 2015 and more than 60,000 so far this year, but still never adequately supported at the European level.

The Italian point of view emerged during the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants in late September 2016 when Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Paolo Gentiloni delivered his speech. Mr Gentiloni explained that European countries have to invest in Africa to tackle the root causes of migration, primarily economic and demographic inequalities. This is the so-called “Migration Compact”. He once again called for the spirit of solidarity and full commitment to address migratory flows as it is -and always has been- a European problem, not only an Italian one.

The “Migration Compact” project’s goal is to reduce the flows along the Mediterranean route thanks to partnerships with origin and transit countries. However, this initial Italian proposal was much more detailed than the Framework Partnership recently approved by the EU. For Italy, the EU and African countries would have to cooperate on shared border control and fight against crimes, on migrant access to the European labour market and finally on the resettlement scheme to distribute asylum seekers in more countries.

For their part, African countries would have to be fully committed to the reduction of flows in cooperation with the European Border and Coast Guard; to cooperate on repatriations when asylum seekers applications are rejected; to build reception and identification centres on African soil and finally, to fight against smugglers in joint police operations. In addition to that, the EU would have to make some development aid conditional, delivered only if African countries are willing to accept readmission of migrants whose applications have failed. Italy has also promoted a resettlement program, the “humanitarian corridor” project, aimed at saving the most vulnerable among migrants: women and unaccompanied children who could end up in the hands of smugglers more easily. The Italian government still hopes that the “humanitarian corridor” project can be taken up as a best practice at the European level.

All Italian hopes seemed to have been dashed at the Bratislava Summit on 16 September -the first one without Britain. It spread disillusionment among Italian authorities because there was no great relaunch or ambitious plan after the Brexit shock. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was overtly dissatisfied with the meeting after being excluded from a joint press conference by Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande. Mr Renzi bitterly stated in a subsequent interview with the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera: “since I represent Italy, one of the countries that donates more money to the EU, I have the duty to defend the national interest. The European summit in Bratislava did not produce great results. We had to revive ourselves after the Brexit shock, but for the moment much promise, little delivery. I don’t know what Merkel is referring to when she talks about the ‘spirit of Bratislava’. If things go on like this, instead of the spirit of Bratislava we’ll be talking about the ghost of Europe“.

One month after tensions in Bratislava over the Italian “Migration Compact” proposal, French and German Ministers eventually gave the green light to use 500 million euros to fund a reviewed version of the project, much less ambitious than the Italian idea. Allocated funds will be employed to accomplish three objectives: first, improve the living conditions of locals; second, convince governments to dissuade migrants from crossing the national borders to get to Libya and then Europe; third, finalise deals for repatriations for those who reach Europe illegally.

Activities on the High Seas and Arrival Points for Migrants in Italy

However, the migration crisis on Italian shores is not over yet. Italy has now overtaken Greece as the main point of entry for migrants trying to reach Europe, according to figures from International Organisation for Migration getting to 145,381 migrants so far (compared to 154,000 in the whole of 2015). “Migrants arriving by sea to Italy are actually the main problem faced by the European Union in its efforts to stem mass immigration to the bloc”, said Fabrice Leggeri, head of the European Border and Coast Guard. EU officials say that by all accounts, some 90 percent of arrivals in Italy began their trip on smugglers’ boats in Libya. The rise in the number of rescues may be due to the EU stepping up the Operation Sophia mission. Leggeri reassured that his agency would get more involved in efforts to reinforce returns to African countries and to help Italy, especially where migrants disembark.

Migrants are usually rescued in international waters in the Central Mediterranean Sea. The main points of disembarkation are in the south of Italy – where most identification and reception centres are located are Augusta, Pozzallo, Catania, Palermo, Messina, Trapani (in Sicily), the island of Lampedusa, Reggio Calabria, Crotone, Vibo Valentia, Corigliano Calabro (Calabria) and the Southern Apulia shores.

Redistribution Points and Policies

Nigerians are statistically the first declared nationality of arrivals, followed by Eritreans, Gambians and other nationalities of Western Africa. Asylum-seekers are forced to leave the reception centres when receiving their permit (refugee status, humanitarian or subsidiary protection) and are relocated according to the national quota distribution system to different regions on Italian territory, to the main cities which sometimes divert them to the hinterlands.

Lately, major Italian cities have borne the brunt of this emergency because they have got more charity associations willing to help refugees as well as more than one hot spot and reception facility nearby railway stations. This is the case in Lombardy and in particular Milan. Milan had overcrowded reception centres near the Central Station for the whole summer. Similarly, other cities in Lombardy such as Como, or in Ligury, Piedmont and Veneto region were in the same situation. Northern Italy cities are preferred by migrants since they are more connected to exit points towards neighbouring countries such as France, Switzerland and Austria – whose borders are now almost totally closed, with border guards pushing migrants back to Italy. Migrants reported in centres and informal points in Ventimiglia are around 800, around 400 in Como and 400 in Bolzano. As the winter approaches, the number of homeless people has risen substantially in Milan and other major cities like Turin, Bologna and Rome.

On the other hand, the European emergency relocation system to assist Italy and Greece has been in place ever since 2015. Individuals in need of protection with a good chance of having their applications processed positively are relocated to other Member States. If the applications are successful, the applicants are allowed refugee status and hence residence in the Member State to which they were relocated. As of 19 October, out of 6,243 individuals relocated, more than 1,300 people departed from Italy and almost exclusively reached Finland, France, Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland, the IOM reported. Based on information from the Italian Ministry of Interior, most of the relocated migrants were Eritrean and Nigerian nationals.

The Greek Case

Like Italy, Greece is an external border country that throughout the years has been on the front line to rescue and welcome hundreds of thousands asylum seekers and migrants coming from the Near East. And, exactly like Italy, it has been long calling for solidarity and common responsibility sharing to handle the most massive migration flows that Europe has been experiencing since World War Two.

The Greek point of view on migration emerged during the 71st United Nations General Assembly, when Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras delivered his speech. Among his remarks, there was the fact that millions of people are on the move and that immigration is a global challenge that no state can face on its own. He reminded how Greece had to handle 1.2 million migrants while all Eastern Europe unilaterally decided to close their borders. “The challenges in Greece are many, including strengthening the protection of borders and enhancing asylum procedures. But they can only work on the basis of shared responsibility and solidarity”. Therefore, the Greek proposal for handling migration is akin to the Italian one, which aims at dealing directly with origin and transit countries thanks to agreements on returns and readmissions as well as concentrating all efforts on a collective joint EU response that will deliver durable solutions.

At the national level, this position on migration came after the national Helleniko system, which was dependant on the Southern Greece reception centres in and around Athens, turned out to be inadequate to welcome the huge numbers. Hence, some initiatives were adopted and fostered by national authorities to establish other hot spots and facilities to be distributed both on the mainland and the archipelago’s islands. Greece’s Immigration Policy Minister Yiannis Mouzalas conceded that the government has now overburdened certain municipalities in Northern Greece.

Most migrants reaching the islands were slowly but surely moved to the mainland, even though so far only unaccompanied children have been transferred. The main problems regarding the burden of migrants coming via the Turkey-Greece route remain: Greek islanders have been struggling with overpopulation and lack of resources and funds, being incapable of coping with the major fluxes counting only on their own forces.

On the EU side, operations and initiatives were strengthened to help Greece deal with flows. On 18 March 2016, EU Heads of State or Government and Turkey agreed to stop irregular migratory flows from Turkey. According to the EU-Turkey Statement, all migrants or asylums seekers whose application is rejected must be returned to Turkey. Thanks to this, Greece has been able to return 587 irregular individuals so far and to slightly reduce the number of arrivals on its shores in comparison to last year. However, according to data presented by the Greek coordinating body handling the crisis, a new route has now been discovered by the latest migrants, passing through Greece via the Evros border river between Greece and Turkey, thus likely to escape the security and border checks.

EU Commission Activity and Greek Relocations to Europe

EU Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos was also optimistic over the EU emergency relocation system to alleviate the burden of the refugee crisis in Greece and Italy. Thanks to this EU initiative, 4,852 individuals have been relocated from Greece mostly to Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania and Spain. Based on information from the Greek Ministry of Interior, the majority of the relocated migrants was represented by Syrian and Afghan nationals.

The Commission is also assisting Greece with expertise and critical advice while coordinating the support provided by other EU agencies. In particular, Frontex has got 700 EU officers in Greece, deployed on the islands, including 675 officers for the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement. Also, Europol has sent 8 specialists to the Greek border to carry out investigations against migrant smuggling and another 10 officers from EU Member States to do security checks in the hotspots.

However, figures by the North Aegean Regional Police are still dramatic: the number of asylum applicants trapped on the islands of the North Aegean as for October 2016 reached 10,840 individuals and the total of refugees and migrants believed to be stranded in Greece only is 60,629.                 National authorities estimate that 7,618 people are housed in alternative accommodation, whereas 8,700 are now living outside accommodation facilities. Further, based on information collected by the International Organisation for Migration, there have been 171,185 arrivals to Greece so far out of 340,000 in the whole of Europe and based on data collected by the Hellenic Coast Guard, more than ten incidents have been registered in the Aegean Sea. As is the case, Greece has been coping with the fourth largest number of asylum applications in Europe.


Given the complexity of the phenomenon and considering that the root causes are multi-faceted and context-specific, different strategic responses are required. Therefore, to address the migration issue there is a host of possible solutions. At the end of the day what really matters and concerns the whole of Europe is the real effectiveness or ineffectiveness of all EU efforts being taken to handle migration flows, to fight against smugglers and traffickers as well as to prevent new terrorism episodes on the European territory. The collective hope is that plans will be feasible in reasonable time and will be as realistic as possible. This actually means delivery of timely results and durable solutions. With regards to this, however, there are three aspects to consider which could compromise the effectiveness of all EU efforts.

One potential factor that could undermine the effectiveness of the various measures comes from the results of a Europol investigation. Europol uncovered that there’s been a shift in smuggling techniques – which have turned out to be very flexible and adaptable – and in routes which now are mostly off the beaten track, away from the normal cross border roads and for that matter highly risky. Smugglers are believed to adapt quickly to strict border control and soon find new ways and modus operandi to escape law enforcement rules.

As has already happened in Greece and Italy, more and more smugglers are asking customers to pay thousands of euros for false documents and passports as well as for carrying out irregular cross-border trips. These trips often departure from Patras or Northern Greek harbours, where migrants are carried together with cargo, under trucks or hidden in the back of cars. These inhuman and degrading conditions are the same experienced by some migrants who, out of desperation decide to pay large sums to smugglers get to their destination, perpetuating the vicious circle.

A second problem that could hinder the EU initiatives is represented by the lack of a long-term spirit of solidarity and willingness to cooperate. In the long run this means being reluctant in burden-sharing support and acceptance of a fair share of migrant quotas. The immigration issue has already created deep divisions between Member States and shown the limits of collective efforts while populist movements have taken advantage of the common fears. Their opponents argue that solidarity needs to be resumed and to stay alive in order to jointly address common problems and come up with a single effective solution.

This was the case for the EU and NATO, which have held together geographically distant states which had nonetheless a common response to difficulties. Europe has been guided by different and often diverging national interests, translated in fragmented and diverging policies. Egoism and national interests have always had the upper hand on the long-term objective of improvement of international policies on delicate international issues.

A third obstacle in handling migration could be the cumbersome slowness of EU institutions in the joint approval, agreement and finally implementation process of all the new mechanisms. By the time they truly become operational and work effectively, up to 4-5 years sometimes passes. Meanwhile, Europe will have to cope with ongoing and relentless flows of migrants and refugees as it is a structural global phenomenon unlikely to stop in the medium or long term. It is thus fundamental to adopt a different foreign policy approach and, in particular, to revive the political initiatives in the Middle East and Africa region. So far European foreign affairs approach has been hesitating, divergent and sometimes contradictory because the policies of EU Member States have been like that too. Therefore, every action makes sense only if there is a political plan of regional stabilisation. This could be translated in post-conflict stabilisation procedures, institution building and tailor-made policies to give answers to local and regional crises.

Since the European Council of June 2016, the EU has built a new architecture in handling migration which now is at the heart of the EU external policy priorities.

In the short term, what seems likely to follow is a “war” between multilateralism and sovereignty. High-income countries, which are most attractive to migrants and refugees, will change their position depending on two variables. First, whether the mixed flows of migrants either seeking humanitarian protection or enhanced livelihoods continue apace. Second, whether the widespread instability in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa is brought under control or is further compounded.

In the longer term, the Partnership Framework as well as the EU Border and Coast Guard system and other joint EU initiatives could possibly be extended to other countries as long as are available the adequate resources to do so. However, it is still crucial to look for alternative policies and tools to eventually get to a stable pathway to legal migration and eradicate the root causes leading to this. If comprehensive multilateral as well as national engagement is maintained, the EU will have put in force a migration and mobility policy bringing deep change for both external borders and Europe itself.

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