Frontex’s plan to assist Greece in guarding its borders with Turkey shortly after the country filed a request for support last August was discussed in an exclusive interview by Kathimerini with the French executive director of the European Union’s External Borders Agency, Fabrice Leggeri.
From his office in Warsaw, the 51-year-old EU official spoke about his phone calls with Citizens’ Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis and Shipping and Island Policy Minister Yiannis Plakiotakis in late August 2019 ahead of an emergency meeting of the government’s Council of Foreign Affairs and Defense (KYSEA) that discussed a surge in migrant flows to the islands of the eastern Aegean.
“They called my mobile phone and told me the Defense Council would probably decide to ask for Frontex’s immediate assistance,” Leggeri said. “I found their move to contact me directly very positive, as it allowed us to move quickly and save time.”
Asked what it was that Greece asked of Frontex, Leggeri says it was to activate the Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABIT). The request initially involved assistance in guarding Greece’s maritime border, but it was later decided that a similar operation should also be launched on the mainland border with Turkey, in Greece’s northwestern Evros region, he said.
After speaking to the two government ministers again about the situation in Evros, he said he was told that there were migrants along the border from Edirne to the river delta. About 15,000 to 20,000 people were waiting for the opportunity to cross the border with Greece. Up until last Monday from the previous Saturday, there were 2,000 migrant arrivals, he explained.
Since then, he observes, there has been a decline in arrivals. “There are fewer people across the border today (March 6), while on Thursday (March 5) migrants began returning to Istanbul. But the situation is constantly changing and we Europeans must be ready to deal with any difficulties,” he said. Leggeri explained that Frontex is also closely monitoring the situation at Bulgaria’s border with Turkey. “At the moment it can be described as calm; however, we should be ready for any developments.”
Before elaborating on the operational plan for the deployment of RABIT, the head of the EU Border Agency clarified that 70 percent of those gathered on the Turkish side of the border were Afghans and Pakistanis. “They traveled to Turkey in the hope of finding an opportunity to cross into Greece and Europe,” he added.
The French official noted that 500 European border guards are already in Greece taking part in Operation Poseidon, which is still under way in the Aegean, assisting with border surveillance, saving lives at sea, working in registration and identification capacities, as well as combating cross-border crime.
“With RABIT we will increase our strength. One hundred border guards will be deployed in Evros. We are in contact with the Hellenic Police to decide where exactly they will patrol. However, when the minister of citizens’ protection called me he was mainly concerned about Kastanies,” he said, referring to the Greek border crossing facing Turkey’s border post at Pazarkule.
Concerning Greece’s sea borders, Leggeri said the agency is still examining what personnel and equipment will be required. He stressed, however, that Frontex had secured two-thirds of those who had been requested by the coast guard and the Shipping Ministry and that there were 15 member-states which had expressed a desire to provide assistance.
Following Leggeri’s interview last week, Frontex told Kathimerini it had secured two patrol boats, seven aircraft, one helicopter and four vehicles equipped with thermal cameras. Leggeri said the first 100 border guards were scheduled to arrive in the Evros border region today.
Asked whether he is concerned about the possibility of the European Agency finding itself in the midst of a bilateral “clash” between Greece and Turkey, he said that the current situation was not at all the same as the 2015 crisis. He explained, however, that the current problems have been caused by the mistaken impression that the borders are open, leading migrants to believe that the road to Europe is open. “We have a clear mission to curb illegal migration, to conduct security checks, to support Greece in fingerprinting migrants,” he said.
The EU official was also asked about press reports and videos on social media showing coast guard crews aggressively pushing back dinghies with migrants. Leggeri simply said that Frontex is looking into the allegations about what is happening at the border but was currently unable to say “anything specific.”
Greece is the only EU country where Frontex has deployed its RABIT teams. The first time was in Evros in 2010, when the agency assisted in dealing with migrant arrivals, and the second in autumn 2015, in the eastern Aegean.
Leggeri also revealed to Kathimerini that Frontex is in discussions with the Greek government to develop a joint action plan for the return of irregular migrants to their countries of origin. “I am optimistic that we will soon have a joint action plan. From my contacts with government officials, I understand that Greece is seriously interested in increasing the number of returns,” he said.
However, he warned that Frontex’s operational capabilities could be severely curtailed if a proposal by Croatia – which holds the rotating EU Presidency – to reduce its budget by up to 50 percent is adopted.