Frontex Mission in Greece Turns Permanent, Expanded to Bulgaria-Turkey Border

Politics » BULGARIA IN EU | March 3, 2011, Thursday // 11:47
Bulgaria: Frontex Mission in Greece Turns Permanent, Expanded to Bulgaria-Turkey Border Greek police officers together with Frontex border police patrol near the northeastern city of Orestiada, at the Greek-Turkish borders, on 05 November 2010. EPA/BGNES

The mission of the EU border protection agency Frontex to crack down on the influx of illegal immigrants through the Greece-Turkey border has been made permanent, and will also be expanded to cover Bulgaria's border with Turkey.

This has been announced by the European Commission as the anti-migrant operation in Northeastern Greece by members of Frontex's Rapid Border Intervention Team, or RABIT, officially ended on Thursday.

Frontex guards from 25 EU member states, including Bulgaria, are to remain at the most porous section of the Greek-Turkish border along the Maritsa River (known as the Evros River in Greece) at least till the end of 2011 in the "Poseidon 2011 Land Operation", an extension of the agency's Poseidon operation.

EU's Joint Operation Poseidon started in 2006 as a purely sea-based operation patrolling the coastal waters between Greece and Turkey. Since the beginning of 2010, Poseidon has also had a land-based component covering the Greek land border with Turkey

European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom has described the RABIT operation (in place November 2010-March 2010, following Poseidon 2010 and preceding Poseidon 2011) as "a concrete demonstration of European solidarity."

In November 2010, the EU's border protection agency Frontex sent a 200-member force from 25 EU countries to the Greek-Turkish border areas to provide Greece with emergency assistance in patrolling one of the main points of entry for illegal immigrants into the EU.

The recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the ongoing civil unrest in Libya and other Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East have led the EU and Greece to be additionally concerned over the influx of illegal migrants, and Greece has appealed to Frontex to bolster its presence at the country's land and sea borders.

Another EU and Schengen Area member, Italy, has already seen a tide of illegal immigration from Tunisia leading EU's border agency Frontex to deploy Sunday a special mission to assist the Italian authorities in dealing with the new arrivals, especially on the tiny southern island of Lampedusa entitled "Hermes".

"The immediate launch of the Poseidon joint operation to follow up on the RABIT will ensure continuity in effectively controlling the Greek-Turkish border, as well as in addressing irregular immigration in the Eastern Mediterranean region," EU Home Affairs Commissioner Malmstrom said in a statement on Wednesday.

For its four-month duration, the RABIT operation reduced the influx of illegal immigrants into Greece from Turkey by an estimated 75%, according to EC data. In 2007-2011, Greece has received around EUR 200 M in EU subsidies and emergency funding for boosting its border operations.

During the RABIT operation period – lasting from 2 November 2010 to 2 March 2011- every week close to 200 well-trained guest officers from 26 Member States assisted their Greek colleagues in controlling the border areas as well as in identifying the apprehended irregular immigrants.

"The deployment of the RABIT at the Greek-Turkish border has stabilized the situation and brought down the number of arrivals compared to the peaks in 2010. Since the RABIT operation was launched at the beginning of November 2010, a gradual decrease in the flow of irregular entries has been witnessed at the relevant border sections between Greece and Turkey," the EC has explained. Its data shows that in October, prior to the operation, there were a total of 7 607 persons detected at the Greek-Turkish land border but only 1 632 in February 2011.

With respect to the POSEIDON Land 2011 Joint Operation in Greece, the Commission points out that it will also be extended to the Bulgarian-Turkish border even though no details have been provided as to when this extension will take place and what form it will assume."Frontex has been providing operational assistance to Greece at its external land and maritime borders through various operations since 2006. The RABIT operation built upon the then ongoing Poseidon Land 2010 joint operation by reinforcing the number of the guest officers and assets deployed along the borders. The Poseidon Land 2011 joint operation being launched right after the end of the RABIT operation will ensure continuity in effectively controlling the Greek-Turkish border, as well as in preventing irregular immigration in the Eastern Mediterranean region. It will be a permanent operation covering the remaining period of 2011. The geographical coverage of this operation will be extended to the external land borders between Bulgaria and Turkey," the EC said in its statement.

Unlike Greece, Bulgaria is not a member of EU's "borderless" Schengen Area yet, which for the time being seems to be diverting the illegal immigration wave from the Bulgarian-Turkish border to the Greek-Turkish border. However, even though Bulgaria failed to join the Schengen Agreement in March 2011 as originally planned, it is still likely to become a member of the borderless zone before the end of the year, which means it might also face a tide of illegal immigration.

Greece, which is the destination for tens of thousands of illegal immigrants each year has long accused Turkey of failing to stop the large wave of illegal immigrants entering Greece, and ignoring an agreement to accept the return of detained migrants. Last month, EU ministers backed an illegal immigration agreement with Turkey. Under the agreement Turkey will be required to take back both its own citizens who enter the EU illegally as well as citizens of other non-EU states who do the same. The rules would not apply to asylum seekers.

Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East see Greece as their destination or point of entry into the EU. Only last year, their number was 128 000, the highest in all EU member states. In 2010, Bulgaria, which also has a long land border with Turkey, did not detect a substantial increase of illegal immigrants seeking to enter the EU even though the Bulgarian border police occasionally capture small groups of illegal migrants from the Middle East and Africa.

In December 2010, the Greek government announced plans to build a 12.5-km-long and 3-m-high fence along the most problematic section of the Greece-Turkey border near the Maritsa river and the Greek town of Orestiada, a much smaller border wall than fencing off its entire 209-km land border with Turkey, to deter illegal immigrants but the plan has met with opposition from leftists and human rights organisations, including the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

At the beginning of January 2011, Bulgaria's government indicated Greece's intentions to build birder fences along the borders with Turkey. However, Bulgaria's decision was triggered by the spread of the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), which came from a wild boar that was killed in southeast Bulgaria, near the border with Turkey. However, once the FMD was reported eliminated in early February, the Bulgarian Cabinet, at least for the time building, backed out of its idea to restore the Cold War-era fences along the Turkish border.

Turkey has met with suspicion the intentions of the two countries to build border fences. According to the Chairman of Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis, Sinan Ogan, the two countries have hidden agendas.

Frontex, the EU agency based in Warsaw and founded in 2005, coordinating the operational cooperation between member states in the field of border security under the European Patrol Network project.

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Tags: illegal immigrants, Bulgaria, Egypt, turkey, border, Greek, greece, Turkish border, FRONTEX, Italy, Cecilia Malmstrom, EC, EU, illegal immigration, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Arab world, North Africa, Middle East, Operation Poseidon, RABIT, Operation Hermes, external border, Schengen, Schengen Area, Schengen Agreement

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