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Safeguarding Europe’s Southern Borders: Interview with Klaus Roesler, Director of Operations Division, Frontex

Editor’s note: Illegal immigration is a major security issue for the EU, and one that is highly politicized in many European countries today. The European Union has 42,672km of external sea borders and 8,826km of external land borders (not counting Croatia, which is expected to join in 2013). The key agency tasked with coordinating cooperation at the EU’s external borders, while also helping member states improve their border policing capacities, is Frontex. Active since June 2005, this organization works with EU member states to provide operational coordination at external borders, while also overseeing border management standards of a uniform quality, in the process liaising with various international organizations and security structures involved with organized crime and migration issues.

Although it is based in Warsaw and has been active on several EU borders, Frontex has received the most media attention for its land and sea operations in the Mediterranean – from Spain’s Canary Islands to Lampedusa, between Italy and Libya, and above all at Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey. In October 2010, for the first time in Frontex’s history, a Rapid Border Deployment Team (RABIT) was deployed, to Greece’s Evros border region with Turkey. This operation resulted in a 70 percent decline in illegal immigration over a four-month period.

In this exclusive new interview, director Chris Deliso gets the insights of Klaus Roesler, the director of Frontex’s Operations Division regarding the general operations of the Agency and its present and future activities in Greece, allowing readers to get a better understanding of both the challenges faced and the criminal and human dimensions of illegal migration.

Planning Field Operations

Chris Deliso: Thanks for speaking with us today. First of all, can you give our readers a little background about what it is like being in your position, as the director of Operations Division?

Klaus Roesler: Frontex headquarters in Warsaw employs almost 300 staff members. Heading the Operations Division, my area of responsibility is to manage three units – the Frontex Situation Center, the Risk Analysis Unit (RAU), and the Joint Operations Unit which includes land, sea, air border and return operations.

According to Klaus Roesler, the working relationship between Frontex and Greece “has developed very well, and there have been mutual benefits for all involved.”

We plan and implement coordinated Joint Operations (JO) and operational projects, and evaluate those, based on and closely connected with the risk assessment. RAU provides analytical products on the strategic level, in particular the Annual Risk Assessment, as well as analytical support to the JOs, and tailor-made risk assessments.

CD: By tailor-made do you mean created for a specific region, or a particular phenomenon?

KR: Yes; the risk assessments are used by Frontex in planning operations – a tailor-made product constitutes the basis to identify needs, first of all, and to develop the adequate operational response in cooperation with the EU member states. Also the RAU issues quarterly reports on the migratory situation on EU external borders, which are also available to the public. Risk analysis on a daily basis supports operations. It can be concluded that Frontex is an intelligence-driven organization; our operations are based on risk assessment, and implemented in the most effective way in order to respond the migration situations in question.

Coordination Responsibilities of Frontex, as Compared to Those of the Hosting Member State (HMS)

CD: How is it done?

KR: For the implementation of a joint operation, we coordinate the deployment of experienced border guards from EU member states in agreement with the host member state. For example, in the JO ‘Poseidon Land’ in Greece, we have approximately 80 experts stationed along the Greek-Turkish border in the Evros region.

So, when a project is implemented, an International Coordination Center (ICC) is established to coordinate and monitor the operation. It brings together representatives of the member states involved in the operation, along with the competent authorities from the hosting member state, forming an international coordinating board. The board meets on a daily basis, and is chaired by host member state’s Head of ICC with the Frontex coordinating officer as co-chair. So the host member state (HMS) benefits from having the expertise provided by Frontex and the participating MS, brought to them at precisely the border areas where it is needed.

The Frontex coordinating mechanism of implementation ensures the cooperation of all participants with the HMS involved. While we are involved in the coordination, the host member state keeps the command-and-control of the operation. For whatever is done in performing the operational activities, the authorities of the HMS will be in charge. For example in Greece, this means the Hellenic Police, and regarding maritime surveillance, the Hellenic Coast Guard.

CD: So, this means that in the case of disputes, as there have been known to happen, with Turkey, you don’t have to be involved in directly dealing with them?

KR: I don’t confirm any situation that you call [a] ‘dispute’ with Turkey; as a general rule and very basic principle the competent authorities from the HMS, Greece, would be the ones carrying out contact and cooperation with the Turkish side. This is their responsibility; Frontex is just coordinating the operational activities of the member states on the Greek territory.

CD: So, in a high-profile case, like the Latvian-piloted aircraft that was accused by Turkey of violating its airspace-

KR: This incident happened more than one year ago; according to the findings made by the competent Hellenic authorities and the crew there was no violation of Turkish airspace.

CD: Fine, I ask this just as an example- in general, what I would like to know is what could hypothetically occur in such cases, i.e., could there ever be a military confrontation between the two bordering states and if so what would be the implications for the EU and Frontex.

KR: The border guards of the EU member states are operating as civil law enforcement authorities, not military.

CD: So, if there was any sort of altercation or misunderstanding between the two countries, Greece and Turkey, you would have no need to be involved?

KR: Yes, the Hellenic authorities have to deal with such incidents. Frontex understands its coordinating role focused on the border related operational cooperation with the EU MS, not expanding to bilateral issues with one MS and a non-EU-neighbor. But Frontex seeks for developing partnership also with non-EU-countries in line with the EU-Relex-policy and the EU concept for Integrated Border Management (IBM); with many countries – so with all Western Balkan countries – we have working arrangements covering general aspects and interests of cooperation in the field of border control, for example the exchange of information, or the invitation as observers during joint operations. Handling of specific incidents typically does not fall under the scope of such working arrangements. With Turkey, Frontex is expecting to conclude a working arrangement soon.

Frontex in Greece: Mutual Benefits and Successes

CD: Fine. I would like to continue from that to ask how would you characterize the quality of cooperation between Frontex and the Greek authorities over the past couple years. Have things been generally good during these missions? Does anything stand out in particular?

KR: We have achieved a very satisfying level of cooperation with the respective Greek authorities. Of course, sometimes there are issues to be discussed, and resolved. In the RABIT operation, the fact that officers from several different EU countries came together and worked together in Greece, and managed to have good cooperation with the national police, was very good. The relationship has developed very well, and there have been mutual benefits for all involved.

CD: Can you specify at all what these benefits have been? What has Frontex learned from the Greeks, and what have the Greeks learned from your experts?

KR: We have gained from them a better understanding of the situation in the area, and the geographical challenges of working in the area [of Evros], and as an example we have all gained more experience in operating thermal vision units there. We have brought related expertise from a wide range of all EU Member States; the first step for them was to have the local authorities get them familiarized with operational conditions, which was successful. And the local and regional authorities have in turn taken advantage of our experience and expertise in different fields.

Member States deploy, within the framework of joint operations, officers with high expertise to assist their colleague officers in the host country. A big advantage of our work is that we are implementing the Community Law–Schengen borders code, and good practices based on a harmonized system of professionalism and shared expertise. The RABIT operation in Greece demonstrated that this could provide benefits for the host member states as well.

CD: That’s an interesting point. Are there any specific examples however, of how this particular expertise has come into play and enhanced border security in the case of Greece?

KR: Yes, certainly. If you are a country like Greece, experiencing a major migration pressure, with people coming from countries such as the Horn of Africa or Middle East, what you need for improved effectiveness to deal with the situation is to have sufficient experts in conducting interviews. And also you need people with the right language skills. Without that, you cannot find out from where these people are, the route they are coming by, more circumstances and so on.

Besides the border surveillance and checks, two elements are important in addressing the border situation. One is screening and interviewing migrants to get the presumed nationalities of these persons, because this supports the host member states responsible authorities to carry out the appropriate migration management process.  Interviews in the native languages of the migrants is an important first step to identify their real nationality in order for the member state to take a decision whether a migrant is entitled to receive some form of international protection or not.

Secondly, another important element that Frontex considers when deploying experts is the need for specialized staff for debriefings, in addition to the screeners. These are experts who perform longer, more comprehensive interviews with migrants, and who have the special ability to build confidence. This is needed to gather crime intelligence.

The added value of Frontex is our ability to organize and coordinate deployment of such specialized staff quickly and effectively. For Greece, we have dispatched, for example, expert interviewers fluent in Farsi or Arabic from several Member States. And earlier this year, during the political changes in Tunisia, we were able for example to send from France the right people to interview migrants arriving in Italy, as most of the Tunisians speak French.

CD: These are all very interesting points. If we turn to further ways of effective border control, we can also point to another category of Frontex officers used – as far as I understand, those who are experts in document forgery. Can you expand on this?

KR: Yes, this is another related component. Experts in document forgery, officers who can detect false passports or the modus operandi of imposters are vital for effective joint operations. The host member state can thus use our expertise to gain criminal intelligence also on the trafficking networks.

CD: Where are these document forgery experts being deployed in Greece? Are they traveling along the Evros border with police patrols, or do they stay back in offices in the main towns?

KR: Well, our document experts are not used on patrols of the ‘green’ border; the persons illegally crossing that way usually don’t have any documents at all. Instead, Frontex experts in document forgery work closely with the Hellenic Police at the official border checkpoints such as Kipi, where we also deploy technical equipment, such as heartbeat detectors.

Defining Crime Networks and the Flow of Intelligence

CD: What new factors have you been able to discover through the work of such experts? Can you tell how sophisticated the trafficking groups are by the quality of their forgeries or other tactics? Frontex documentation states that 30 ‘facilitators’ have been detained on the Greek-Turkish border through joint operations. Has this brought any new important information on specific groups, where they come from, if some of these individuals have criminal or even terrorist affiliations, etc?

KR: We don’t have it [this intelligence]. Frontex is not the ‘owner’ of such data, and for the time being we don’t process any personal data. All the information goes to the host nation, in this case Greece, so we can’t cross-check names or telephone numbers for them, for example. We are just coordinating the operations by providing expertise and support, and it is the responsibility of the host member state’s security agencies to share it with the relevant EU and international agencies. From there they can work on dismantling the criminal networks, through sharing the data they accumulate through the operations coordinated by us.

CD: So, if you can’t give particulars about these “facilitators” arrested, can you provide at least some idea of the structure of how the whole trafficking network operates, in general?

KR: Well, we can say that these migrants are not arriving spontaneously. They are brought by organized facilitation groups, paying them for this illegitimate crossing to Greece, even 1000-1500 Euros per person. There they are also facilitated when transported further inland or to borders with the neighbors of Greece. This is a big business for the groups working in the background, which can at least be partly considered as organized crime groups.

And we know how it goes: people in their home country are given an offer to get into Europe, where they are told they will be able to work and make money for their families; they are provided a ride, but then the amount requested is not enough… the whole family or clan is ordered to contribute more money to the traffickers. And after they do, it is still not enough, and then when the migrants get to Europe, that is where often the true slavery starts. The trafficked persons have to keep making money for the trafficking organizations.

Future Estimates and Lessons Learned

CD: What can you say are the main challenges for Frontex in the years ahead? There have been reports, for example, that your success in decreasing the illegal crossings at the Greek-Turkey land border might encourage traffickers to move north, to the Turkey-Bulgaria border, since Bulgaria and Romania are hoping to join the Schengen zone. And of course the situation in North Africa remains fluid.

KR: We can’t predict particulars, simply because we don’t know exactly how the situation will develop. This is why there is a great need for more analysis, for the continued monitoring of emerging migration phenomena. The Turkey-Greece land border has been significant for the last 1.5 years, and Frontex is going to continue the coordinated MS’ presence there for effective control of the border.

Although we don’t know how the migratory flows and risks will develop, but we are prepared to assist MS whose external borders will be affected. This applies also for Bulgaria.

North Africa certainly remains very important to monitor – who knows where and how the situation affecting migration flows will develop next. But for the time being, the political and security developments in North Africa are pretty difficult to assess. There have been different patterns, owing to different causes in recent years of Frontex activities.

If we look at 2006, it was the Canary Islands that experienced a great migrant influx; in 2008 and 2009, the Central Mediterranean; in 2009, the center of migration pressure moved to the Aegean Sea and in 2010, to the Greek-Turkish land border. And now Italy with Lampedusa Island is again especially affected by the Tunisia and Libya crises.

CD: That said, what are the key challenges Frontex now faces in order to coordinate better and more effective operations in the future?

KR: Frontex continues to increase its flexibility. However, everything starts with awareness; therefore we have to strengthen the capacity to monitor information sources and to analyze the data. And we will further develop the efficiency to implement operations. This is mainly headquarters work.

Second, if we consider the huge amount of poor people who want to go to the EU, who are willing to risk everything for that, we cannot ignore the responsibility to respect the fundamental rights of those in need. This is a basic element in all joint operations coordinated by Frontex. It is a part of our ‘portfolio’ to liaise with human rights organizations such as the UNHCR, and to get their input and expertise. And again, in this respect we provided added value.

CD: So, if I may return to the case of Greece specifically, what have you been able to take away from the experience so far? Were there any particular ‘lessons learned’ from that field of operations?

KR: Certainly. We have had a lot of things that are useful to take away from our experience in Greece. Some of this will be made clearer soon- we intend to make a version of the evaluation report on the RABIT operation available to the public, and that will answer some of your questions.

There are two major lessons learned from the experience of Frontex in Greece, however. First is the need to work on further strengthening activities relating to screenings and debriefings, in order to better contribute to the migration management under national responsibility and to acquire criminal intelligence.

Second, the other major lesson learned is that we need to strengthen Frontex’s coordination role. We must do our utmost to promote good cooperation with local authorities and implement plans in the most effective way.

Also, I would like to underscore that Frontex’s mission should not be misunderstood – we are committed to facilitate the legal movements and to promote fundamental rights; we see borders as connecting people, but we [also] have to fight irregular activities and prevent cross -border criminality.

CD: That’s an interesting and important point. If I could ask a final question- some observers were concerned that the limited length of time for the operations in Greece last year meant that the problem with migration would get out of control again should Frontex leave. What is the situation now? Does Frontex plan to leave, and if so do you expect this sort of situation to reoccur?

KR: Our engagement in Greece since the RABIT operation ending in March 2011 has been replaced by the Poseidon Land and also Poseidon Sea joint operations. These are permanent operations.

CD: That is good to hear. Mr Roesler, I want to thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today.

KR: Thank you.

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