Europe's border agency Frontex is preparing to speed up identification of illegal migrants and help deport them in large numbers as irregular arrivals this year topped a record half a million.
“When you have up to 40 percent of migrants coming from a third country not granted refugee status and if nothing happens, if they are not returned, what message does the EU convey to potential migrants?” Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri told Reuters a day after EU ministers agreed to grant the agency more powers and resources.
EU data show just under half of asylum claims were granted last year but less than half of those rejected were deported.
Frenchman Leggeri, who took over the coordinating agency for the EU's external borders in January, warned that more migrants may have to be detained and forcibly sent home.
But he voiced concern that national governments have cut back on border guards during the recession, limiting the numbers of trained personnel available for secondment by Frontex to crisis zones.
After a call last week by EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker for a dedicated EU border guard and coastguard service, Leggeri said he was keen to extend typical periods of secondment for staff to a year or more from as little as a month and could imagine Frontex one day having forces of its own to deploy.
Funding and staff are still being worked out, Leggeri said, but Frontex is now working on ways to speed fingerprinting and registration of people claiming asylum, notably to filter those fleeing for their lives from those simply seeking a better life.
With Europe opening its doors to Syrians, Frontex operations in Greece had revealed high levels of “nationality swapping” – of people initially claiming to be Syrian, 13 percent were not.
“Those 13 percent are very likely irregular migrants, some are from North Africa,” he said. “They must be returned.”
European governments have turned to Frontex to ensure that overburdened Greek and Italian authorities stop and deport more economic migrants before they evade registration and travel north across Europe's Schengen zone of unguarded borders.
“I cannot see the Schengen area functioning properly if we cannot ensure the external border is properly managed,” Leggeri said.
A pilot project in Greece had found a four-person team could register 800 people a day, he said. But with sometimes 10 times that many arriving daily greater efforts is needed – not least as many migrants try to evade fingerprinting, some because they want to reach richer EU states so as to claim asylum there.
While some criticise attempts by Hungary to control migrants on the move, Leggeri said some degree of coercion would be needed: “Some migrants might be reluctant,” he said. “For me, if they don't want to give fingerprints it means they are not asylum-seekers… That means they are irregular migrants.
“You might have some sort of problems related to public order if you have 2,000, 3,000 or more people on the spot,” he added.
Frontex, which has 306 personnel, was now assessing how many staff would be needed – though detention itself will be up to each state.
Last year, Frontex organised only 3,000 deportations – “returns” in the jargon. That figure could rise substantially with new powers to help national authorities arrange flights and secure travel documents from deportees home countries.
Persuading people to leave voluntarily is much preferred, Leggeri said: “But we know that voluntary return is not enough and … forced return in some cases is the only option.
“To a certain extent you need detention centres.”