Updated | Frontex can develop into an 'authority that protects borders, save lives'

Dimitris Avramopoulos to order in-depth study to recent revision of Dublin Regulations • ‘Asylum seekers knocking on Europe’s doors are not potential terrorists but people fleeing dangers’

European Commissioner-designate for migration Dimitris Avramopoulos (Photo: EP/Flickr)
European Commissioner-designate for migration Dimitris Avramopoulos (Photo: EP/Flickr)
In reply to a question by PN MEP Roberta Metsola, Avramopoulos agreed that more solidarity with countries like Malta is needed and committed to re-examining the Dublin Regulation
In reply to a question by PN MEP Roberta Metsola, Avramopoulos agreed that more solidarity with countries like Malta is needed and committed to re-examining the Dublin Regulation

European Commissioner-designate for migration Dimitris Avramopoulos called for a “legal migration system” in order to establish legal and safe route for asylum seekers seeking refuge in Europe.

The former Greek defence minister has been nominated for migration and home affairs – but his nomination raised concerns among the committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs. Avramopoulos hails from Greece, a country which has received both domestic and international criticism on its handling of asylum seekers and its track record in human rights.

Naturally, Avramopoulos was asked about his own country’s track record, and diplomatically, the Commissioner-designate declined to comment: “Please don’t ask me about the domestic policy of the country that knows me best.”

He committed himself to undertaking initiatives to establish legal and safe routes for asylum seekers.

“We need a legal framework. Not just on asylum. But for irregular migration as well. We should be quite decisive in fighting against people smugglers,” he said.

He argued that legal migration would benefit the European Union, which was facing “a major demographic issue”.

“We need to increase competitiveness,” he said, ostensibly referring to Europe’s demand for skilled labour.

Avramopoulos said the EU knew about the numbers of deaths because the corpses were found, “but there are many corpses that were never found”.

The first question he fielded was from Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola who raised the issue of lack of solidarity between member states, notwithstanding the pressure placed by the European Parliament.

Speaking in Maltese, she also asked what guarantees could he give to ensure the proper surveillance of the Mediterranean and whether he was ready to give a concrete commitment to tackle those criminal networks of traffickers that prey on the most vulnerable.

Due to time limit for every question, Avramopoulos was stopped just as he started to speak about Malta.

He however reiterated his commitment to order an in-depth study of the recent revision to the Dublin Regulation and what changes should have been carried out.

Avramopoulos was also clear in that some points of the Dublin Regulation should be revised, but the basic principle of solidarity should be respected.

With questions raised on whether Italy would be halting the Mare Nostrum operation – a humanitarian operation that saved thousands of lives at sea and which saw Italy taking the majority of the influx – Avramopoulos reiterated that no EU operation will replace Italy’s operation.

According to the Commissioner-designate, Frontex – which he described as an “excellent organisation” – was doing a good job, but he couldn’t say what will happen to the future of Mare Nostrum. However, he said, the EU will be launching the Triton operation, to support Frontex.

“It is also true that we don’t have enough financing but we have €90 million that have already been committed to the mission and we will continue to demand more monies. We will help reinforce Frontex and international cooperation in the area,” Avramopoulos told Metsola.

In a subsequent reply to Labour MEP Miriam Dalli, Avramopoulos revealed his intentions of seeking Frontex developed into “an authority that protects borders and save lives”.

Frontex’s present role is to promote, coordinate and develop European border management. The humanitarian rescue of the asylum seekers is however left in the countries’ hands.

Dalli asked the Commissioner-designate what steps would be taken to ensure that persons in distress would be saved.

Acknowledging that in its current form, Frontex is responsible for search and rescue, Avramopoulos said all vessels at sea have the responsibility of assisting refugees, including Frontex vessels.

“I have all the intention to ensure that we start an initiative to strengthen Frontex, and not just in the south of Europe. Frontex however doesn’t have the resources in needs or sufficient political support. Its main job is to protect borders.

“We must look at the extent we can beef up Frontex… I want to be very frank: Frontex cannot cross-operate but it can develop into an authority that protects borders and save lives,” he said.

Several times during his grilling, he reiterated that he would require the help of the EP committee.

Avramopoulos recognised that the EU had to show solidarity with countries most hit by migratory flows and Italy, he said, was right in the middle of smugglers’ activity.

“Triton could cover some of the areas in which Mare Nostrum is active in today…but I don’t know what Italy’s final decision will be and I don’t want to hide behind declarations.

“If Italy suspends Mare Nostrum, then it will help out with Triton.”

Avramopoulos said the thinking behind the Commission’s new policy should be based on the respect of human rights and dignity. The main characteristics of the policy to be adopted in the future will see increased protection of unaccompanied minors.

“Children are the most sensitive part of society and they need a special and sensitive treatment. They must not be retained with adults. This is my personal commitment that goes beyond my duty as prospective Commissioner,” he said.

Avramopoulos said asylum seekers knocking on Europe’s doors “are not potential terrorists but people fleeing dangers”.

“They know better than us what these dangers are and they ask for our solidarity, a value that is expected in an area of respectful democracy.”

In his opening speech, Avramopoulos said all member states should move forward together as a Union with all EU countries applying the principles of a robust common asylum system in a uniform manner.

Underling Jean-Claude Juncker’s commitment to address the challenges, he said he was committed to ensuring that human rights while underlining Europe’s responsibility to offering protection, respecting the rights of asylum seekers and the principle of non-refoulement.

Avramopoulos also said it would be a priority of the new Commission to encourage member states to host refugees while ensure the reintegration of irregular migrants – whose asylum request would have been refused – in their country of origin.

He however called for an updated migration framework that respected human rights while member states should come together and reinforce to fight against human smugglers.

“The abominable form of modern slavery that is trafficking should be addressed… and Europe needs international help in tackling the organised crime that is coming from within Europe and worldwide,” he said.

In reply to other questions, Avramopoulos undertook the commitment that Bulgaria and Rumania would soon become members of the Schengen area.

UN letter to member states

In an open letter to the EU’s Committee on Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, UN Special Rapporteur François Crépeau yesterday urged EU Member States to assist Europe’s beleaguered frontline countries- Italy, Malta, Greece and Spain, in managing ongoing search and rescue missions.

“The search and rescue programmes cannot be the sole responsibility of the frontline countries,” Crépeau said.

Italy’s Mare Nostrum operations have been credited with the lion’s share of responsibility in saving stranded migrants and has, according to media reports, saved around 100,000 people since the beginning of the year.

In attempting to seal their borders, European nations are facing an “impossible” task, the United Nations independent expert on the human rights of migrants said today, as he encouraged the European Union (EU) to identify new legal channels of migration in an effort to save lives.

“Sealing international borders is impossible, and migrants will continue arriving despite all efforts to stop them, at a terrible cost in lives and suffering. “If Europe is to witness a significant reduction of human suffering at borders, it must bank not on strict closure, but on regulated openness and mobility,” Crépeau added.

According to UN estimates, 2014 has seen more than 130,000 migrants and asylum-seekers land on Europe’s shores compared with 80,000 last year, while an estimated 800 people have already died in their attempts to cross the Mediterranean.

The Special Rapporteur warned that without regulated open migration channels, the EU would see illegal migration continue to plunge deeper underground where smuggling mafias and exploitative employers operate while also contributing to an increase in the number of deaths at sea. He noted that although EU Member States had increased search and rescue operations, their focus continued to remain on restricting the entry of migrants.

“While it needs to continue attempting to bring unscrupulous smugglers to trial for the suffering they inflict on migrants and asylum-seekers, Europe will find it difficult to defeat resourceful and adaptable mafias unless one destroys their business model, which was created when barriers were erected and which thrives at evading restrictive migration policies of many EU Member States,” Crépeau said.