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Centre Focus Irregular immigration

 - Friday, 30 March 2007, 00:00 , by David Lindsay

As Malta’s tourism industry, and indeed that of the rest of southern Europe, busies itself preparing for the onslaught of European visitors this summer, other quarters are equally occupied as they brace for a very different type of visitor – the irregular migrant.

As the rough winter seas smooth to summer serenity, thousands of African migrants – weary from war, persecution, disease and famine – look with hope from North African shores to the Mediterranean, beyond which lies the perceived promised land of Europe.

But of the thousands who make the crossing each summer – a perilous and expensive journey across the Sahara and the Mediterranean in overcrowded, ramshackle boats – many perish along the way. Hundreds more find themselves in Malta, almost always by mistake or twist of fate, where they come to seek asylum as refugees or under humanitarian protection status.

Over recent months, and in line with the deterioration of human rights situations across the hard-hit Horn of Africa, warnings of a springtime surge in irregular migration along the European Union’s southern borders continue to mount.

Such warnings have come from the EU’s Committee of Regions, which warned southern Europe is facing the “greatest migratory emergency in its history” and more recent remarks made this week by European Commission vice-president and Commissioner for Freedom, Security and Justice Franco Frattini.

Speaking at Frontex, the EU’s border control agency head-quartered in Warsaw, this week, Mr Frattini predicted a spring surge in irregular migration in southern Europe, commenting, “We cannot expect migratory pressures on our southern borders to diminish in the near future”.

He ominously added that “demographic data show migration will rise as the population of the world’s 50 least developed countries is expected to double, from 800 million in 2007 to 1.7 billion in 2050.”

Mr Frattini had warned earlier this year, in January, that permanent patrols of the Mediterranean would be needed, as would a rapid reaction team of immigration experts, by May when sea conditions begin to improve and migrant boats begin to take to the open sea.

In February, a report published by the Committee of Regions issued a dire warning that the shores of southern Europe are facing the “greatest migratory emergency in its history” and that Europe needs to provide urgent financial support for the authorities facing the greatest strain along the EU’s southern borders.

The recommendation, published by Madrid’s director general for state cooperation and European affairs Laura de Esteban Martin, was backed by the members of the EU consultative body in a plenary session in Brussels.

The report calls for a specific financial instrument for areas with the highest immigration levels including Malta, Lampedusa, the Canary Islands and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in north Africa.

“The local authorities on the receiving end of this influx do not have the resources to provide adequate humanitarian care,” Mrs de Esteban Martin finds in her report. “Compounding this extremely serious problem is the lack of a common European migration policy.

“The key to preventing uncontrolled migration is full development cooperation,” she adds, “by implementing projects that generate employment; setting up economic and trade forums, university networks and micro-credit funds for migrants; implementing measures to help migrants cooperate in their own countries’ development; and installing infrastructures, particularly to provide drinking water (42 per cent of Africa‘s inhabitants have no access to drinking water), electricity (only 20 per cent have regular access to the power grid), health centres and schools.”

The Mediterranean migratory routes

A study published in November 2006 – jointly undertaken by Frontex, Europol and the International Centre for Migration Policy Development – evaluated the evolution of migratory flows through the Mediterranean. A total of five main routes have been identified, two of which hold Malta as a central point – the Central Mediterranean and East Africa routes.

The Central Mediterranean Route

The migratory path becomes a major route in Agadez, Niger and represents a major axis along which migrants attempt to illegally travel to Europe. Most migrants using the route end up in Libya, from where they seek passage across the Mediterranean. Thousands of would-be asylum seekers use the route every year, many of who end up in Malta, Italy, Sicily or Lampedusa.

The East African Route

This route has gained significantly in size over recent years, and accounts for most of the asylum seekers landing in Malta. The route originates in the beleaguered Horn of Africa – mainly in Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan – and winds up in Italy, Malta, Sicily or Lampedusa.

Of the 1,700 irregular migrants landing in Malta last year, close to half originated from those four countries – Eritrea (318), Ethiopia (143), Somalia (311) and Sudan (67).

The West African Route

The route starts in the West African countries and finishes primarily in the Canary Islands. This is considered one of the most evolved and one which presents the most challenging problems as concerns maritime border management and the safety of the migrants embarking on what is essentially a highly dangerous sea crossing.

The West Mediterranean route

Like the West African route, the West Mediterranean route originates from West African countries – primarily Niger, Mali, Benin, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. The route heads north through Algeria and/or Morocco and enters either one of the Spanish enclaves in Morocco of - Ceuta and Melilla – or mainland Spain by crossing the Straits of Gibraltar.

The East Mediterranean route

Also used by migrants fleeing the Horn of Africa, the East Mediterranean route is mainly and increasingly used by Middle Eastern and Central Asian migrants such as Pakistanis, Indians, Kurds, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians and Bangladeshis. The route is divided into two trunks – one main part transiting Turkey and going to Greece and another smaller route winding up in Cyprus via Turkey, Lebanon and Syria.

Frontex patrols

Frontex was set up in 2005 to coordinate border operations and to train border security personnel across the EU. The agency, however, is not equipped with its own border guards, boats or helicopters and last year clamoured to get together a mere handful of boats and aircraft with which to patrol southern Europe’s waters.

Frontex is tasked with coordinating the efforts of individual EU member states in securing the EU’s 6,000 kilometres of external land borders and 85,000 kilometres of coastline.

This year the agency is to launch over 30 joint operations spread across the central Mediterranean that will inevitably involve Maltese cooperation, off the Canary Islands, the eastern and western Mediterranean, as well as controls along the EU’s eastern flank in order to deter the so-called Balkan route.

And as the migration authorities in Malta and the other southern European states prepare themselves for what is expected to be a busy migratory season, a Frontex spokesperson speaking with The Malta Independent has confirmed the border agency is to begin its so-called European Patrols Network (EPN) along the EU’s southern maritime borders this spring, which will, in turn serve as a broader cooperation model for the open sea.

The establishment of the EPN is based on member states’ existing patrolling activities, is planned together with the member states, and is intended to become a permanent joint operation.

Based on the European presidency conclusions from the European Council of 15-16 December 2005, Frontex carried out two feasibility studies dealing with institutional and technical possibilities of the surveillance of the southern maritime border of the European Union.

In addition to monitoring the current situation, the studies proposed a number of possible solutions for the Mediterranean area. From an organisational structure point of view the way forward for exchanging information through a network of national contact points connected to Frontex has been suggested.

From the technical point of view, the studies present a structure of a surveillance system covering the southern maritime borders as well as the open sea. The proposed system has been based on an update to existing surveillance activities to form a European Surveillance System. Once in place, the system is expected to play an essential role in saving lives at sea and in tackling illegal immigration.

Speaking with this newspaper, a Frontex spokesperson confirmed the EPN patrols of the southern Mediterranean are to commence in the near future. “We plan to start the (EPN) patrols this spring. For the moment I cannot say that it will be a fully-fledged Mediterranean patrols network. We hope it will be, but let us start and then we will be able to assess if it is fully-fledged or not.

“Taking into consideration that this is only a part of the larger European Surveillance System, and while there are many steps still to be taken by member states toward a comprehensive solution, I can say that it is not fully-fledged but at the same time we want this project to solve many problems in the Mediterranean area.”

The EPNs, in fact, will operate in tandem with other projects such as CRATE (Central Records of Available Technical Equipment), FJSTs (Frontex Joint Support Teams) and RABITs (Rapid Border Intervention Teams) and other joint operations to be carried out this year.

CRATE comprises equipment belonging to member states, which, on a voluntary and temporary basis and upon a request from another member state, they are willing to put at the disposal of another member state in need. The necessity of calling up such equipment for use will follow a Frontex analysis of operational needs and risks.

To date, the technical means needed for individual operations coordinated by Frontex have been offered by the member states on an ad hoc basis following a Frontex request. Once created, the records will facilitate such operations and enable quicker deployment and more extensive technical support.

Frontex has also confirmed that, in terms of CRATE, it has so far received offers from 17 members states. These to date include 21 aircraft, 24 helicopters, 107 vessels and a good amount of other technical equipment for border control and surveillance, such as forgery detection kits, UV lights or heart beat detectors.

Although the numbers are “very satisfactory”, particularly those coming from France and Italy, Frontex stills hopes that more offers will be made in the near future.

Such technical equipment for control and surveillance is deployed in many Frontex operations at all parts of the external border, being it air, land or sea border. The added value of having the centralised records will be strengthened by the establishment of the FJSTs and RABITs.

Both proposals foresee the creation of a pool of experts from the member states, trained by Frontex, which could be deployed in joint operations, either in regular operations planned on the basis of Frontex risk analysis (FJSTs) or in urgent and exceptional situations (RABITs). The pool will be composed of experts and expert teams skilled in individual aspects of border control and with specific geographically related knowledge.

Asked what capacity of the CRATE offers received are to be allocated to Maltese operations this spring and summer, Frontex cites the fact that while the issue is fully related to the joint operations to be carried out this year, the exact details must be withheld due to rules preventing the disclosure of details of operational activities before and during operations.

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