09/2010: Gen. Brig. Ilkka Laitinen


Gen. Brig. Ilkka Laitinen
Executive Director of FRONTEX
(European Agency for the Management of
Operational Cooperation at the External Borders
of the Member States of the European Union)


“FRONTEX five years on: a short discussion of the
Agency’s key activities and outcomes to date”


Ü Eurasylum: Frontex was established in October 2005 with a view to coordinating intelligence-driven operational cooperation at EU level aimed at strengthening security at the external borders. In particular, the Agency assists Member States in the training of national border guards, including the establishment of common training standards; carries out risk analyses and provides technical and operational assistance at the EU external borders; supports the development of research relevant for the control and surveillance of external borders; and provides the Member States with the necessary support in the organisation of joint return operations. Can you sum up some of Frontex’s most noteworthy activities and outcomes under each of these areas over the last five years?

Ü Gen. Brig. Ilkka Laitinen: In terms of joint operations, the most remarkable achievement to date is the system itself. We have created a cohesive, systematic model for joint European operations at the external borders. There are 27 Member States and four Schengen associated countries — that’s 31 countries whose co-operation has to be co-ordinated, which is no trivial matter.

The system starts with risk analysis. We need to know how things look on the border — to highlight and pinpoint the challenges there. Upon these findings we then make recommendations as to how these shortcomings or deficiencies should be remedied. One part of this solution (in addition of course to what the individual member states are doing at a national level) is European/international co-operation: We have a system that keeps Member States up to date with the process and when the core operational plan is compiled we hold discussions with all the countries involved. These countries then plan, implement and finally evaluate the operation. Importantly, because the Member States are involved at every step, once a procedure has been adopted they are absolutely committed to it. This ongoing feedback also ensures that the system is constantly evolving and refining itself.

With regard to training, the most important elements are the curricula. We have compiled a Common Core Curriculum (CCC) which has been applied by all the Member States. This means that border guards have a harmonized and standardized starting point when trained, which is a key achievement. A more tangible example is the partnership academies. We have 11 spread across the EU, where training conducted for all Member States takes place. In addition to the existing CCC, we are also working on a mid-level curriculum, which will have a similar status to a Bachelor’s degree, as well as a high-level one equivalent to a Masters in border management.

Capacity building and research and development are other key areas. So far the focus has been on technology, but we see research and development in a holistic way and in future will focus more on non-tangible issues such as modi operandi, ethics and other forms of interoperability. It is important to stress that Frontex does not itself conduct or fund any research. Rather, we act as a platform that brings border personnel and the world of industry and research institutes together to clarify needs and available solutions. In a wider context, Frontex is also involved in the EU’s larger scale R&D programmes in an administrative capacity.

There are also of course the return operations, which are an integral part of border security. Such operations need to be conducted in order to keep the border security concept credible. It is important to understand that the number of joint return flights that Frontex co-ordinates and co-finances are a tiny minority. The lion’s share of returns of people who have exhausted all possibilities to legalise their stay are conducted voluntarily and with the assistance of bodies such as the International Organization for Migration. Only those unwilling, for whatever reason, to use these voluntary solutions are escorted. When it comes to the intensity of these operations, the development has been remarkable, in particular last year and the year before. And this year will be even more intensive.

What is of paramount importance here is that human dignity should be respected at all times and fundamental rights guaranteed. It is not an easy thing to have to return people, but whenever this has to be done it is vital that we are as transparent as possible and that returns are conducted with full respect for those affected.

Of course no discussion of Frontex’s achievements to date would be complete without mentioning the RABITs (Rapid Border Intervention teams). It has been considered necessary for the EU to have a crisis-response capacity for border control and this mechanism is the RABITs. Although they have never been used, their success can be seen in the same terms as that of a fire brigade — it is not measured according to whether there is a fire, but by their degree of readiness in the event they ever need to be deployed. And the RABITs are ready, as evidenced by real-life exercises. An important point to remember is that whilst Member States are under no obligation to participate in joint European operations, which is the bulk of Frontex’s operational work, they do have an obligation to deploy their experts to these RABITs. For this reason the legislator considered it necessary to define the circumstances under which RABITs should be deployed. By definition these circumstances should be urgent and exceptional. So I think it’s good that they have never been deployed.

Finally, to return to the agency’s focus, which is operations, Operation Hera stands out. By implementing preventive measures off the West African coast, Hera has almost completely stemmed the flow of irregular migration to the Canary Islands via this particularly hazardous route. As a result, hundreds if not thousands of lives have been saved. I think this has to be considered one of our most important achievements.

Ü Eurasylum: Frontex operates on the basis of the so-called EU Integrated Border Security Model, which is a system covering all aspects of border policy. In particular, the system is organised around four complementary tiers which include operational measures in and with third countries; operational border security cooperation with neighbouring third countries; border checks and border surveillance at the external borders; and border security related measures within the Member States. Can you discuss, briefly, the key tenets and benefits of this Integrated Border Security Model, where possible by providing some concrete examples of its implementation?

Ü Gen. Brig. Ilkka Laitinen: When it comes to Integrated Border Management (IBM), it is important to remember that Frontex and border guard authorities are not the only players. We have to do things before the border, across the border, at the border and behind the border, and this is what we call the “Four Tier Model”. Before the borders, we have good, systematic information exchange with air carriers and shipping companies. Across the border, we currently have 12 partnerships with third countries, including neighbouring countries, countries that are a source of irregular migration and countries identified as transit routes. The way we co-operate varies, but all the agreements include information and experience exchange. This is the starting point, followed by possible training activities in which we are able to integrate these third country partners into European networks. In this area there is also some interesting potential for research and development. With some third countries we have also carried out joint operations where their personnel have acted as observers. So, all of this goes on before the border.

At the border, obviously we have the joint operations and operational co-operation. This also includes research and development with regard to the possibilities of greater use of technology at the border, including for example biometric testing and automated identity checks. And behind the border, in the area where people can move freely, we aim to foster and intensify inter-agency co-operation to make the border as easy and straightforward as possible for bona fide travellers, while also being a credible filter for illegal activities.

Luckily we have good examples of inter-agency co-operation both within Member States and at the European level. But we still have a lot of work to do. I have seen myself the painful road to fostering inter-agency co-operation at the national level. And this strengthens my belief that it is achievable, which is why one of Frontex’s core activities in this field is to very proactively encourage the Member States to develop co-operation, in particular among the coast guard, border guard, customs, judicial police and other bodies while demonstrating the willingness and openness to promote inter-agency co-operation at the European level. A good example here is the co-operation between Frontex and Europol.

On the subject of inter-agency co-operation in the wider perspective, I think we have to look at two aspects. From a purely administrative and operational point of view we must see that if we work together we are more effective. We are more aware of the situation if we exchange information, analyse it jointly, and it is more likely that the border security, or other fields of internal security, will be strengthened. The other aspect is of course the citizens’ aspect. We all know that security is about feelings; it’s about perception, and this means that one of the core objectives of the border guards’ work is to strengthen the EU citizens’ subjective sense of security. I am convinced that we have been able to achieve this over the last five years.

In general terms, I consider the Integrated Border Management concept a very comprehensive model that integrates all the actors in the field — policy makers, law makers, border guards, customs, judicial police, phytosanitary, veterinary, consular services— all into one. One of the reasons we have managed to do this successfully is that we have created a European risk-analysis network. This means we have a systematic instrument for information gathering, from Member States and from Schengen associated countries’ border authorities, as well as from our other partners and from open sources. We also have a well-developed model for analyzing this data, called CIRAM (Common Integrated Risk Analysis Model), which enables us to give a much clearer picture of the situation across the whole of Europe’s external border, as well as making forecasts as to what might be expected there.

Perhaps the greatest single challenge in the field of IBM is the fact that there is not yet a unified immigration or asylum policy within the EU, and here we are talking about a rather fundamental and general challenge. We have a large geographical area where border security measures do not include a provision for asylum claims. The example of air carriers is a good one. We can also take visa practices, which form a very critical part of what can be done before the border. When processing a visa application, the consular posts of the Member States do not usually accept asylum claims. In some cases, the same applies to patrols on international waters. There are possibilities under national and international laws to take certain steps for those who are moving in international waters, but, for asylum as a rule, Member States do not acknowledge asylum claims made in these areas and this is something that cannot be solved by practitioners, i.e. by border guard authorities or by coast guard authorities. It is a fundamental issue that has to be resolved. In our regular work at Frontex we encounter these issues if not daily then at least weekly and I believe this is an important challenge.

Ü Eurasylum: Other than the EU Member States, Accession and Candidate countries attract the highest priority in terms of operational cooperation, followed by neighbouring third countries and those third countries which are considered to be either countries of origin or transit in terms of illegal immigration or other kinds of serious cross border crime. Joint measures with third countries include, in particular, the exchange of information and experience; the development of reliable third country information and risk analysis systems; and the secondment of border guards to Member States units responsible for border control. Can you highlight some examples of successful cooperation measures with third countries, including in terms of improved prevention or detection of illegal migration activity and other kinds of serious cross border crime?

Ü Gen. Brig. Ilkka Laitinen: Our approach is always to do whatever we can to improve relations with our third-country partners. We try to promote our values when exchanging experience and information and I think we are in a much better position now than we were five years ago.

When it comes to specific examples, one is the eastern land border and another is the Western African countries. In the east, we have working arrangements in force along the full length of the external border — with the Russian Federation, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova as well as with Georgia. We are also in negotiations with the CIS, which has an agency similar to Frontex. A particular geographical area where we have very well developed co-operation is of course the West Balkans because of their prospects of joining the European Union one day.

In West Africa, Senegal, Mauritania and Cape Verde have all been integrated into Frontex operations for many years with good results, always demonstrating a willingness and capacity to work for the same aims and goals as their European colleagues.

Although we do not have formal working arrangements in place yet with these countries, we are able to work together on the basis of their existing bi-lateral provisions with Spain. This cooperation has had measurable results in reducing people smuggling via the Canary Islands and in preventing the loss of human lives at sea.

Another good example is Turkey. As the main Mediterranean transit route and an EU candidate country, it is a high priority for Frontex. We are at an advanced stage of negotiations towards a working agreement with Turkey as part of this year’s Joint Operation Poseidon land operation. Also, during the EUFA 2006 European Football Championships, Turkey sent ten police officers to Austria, one of the tournament’s host countries, which was again made possible through an existing bi-lateral arrangement between Turkey and Austria.

The working arrangements we have concluded are not the whole story however. One area in which third country co-operation has been strong is that of training. Part of the mission of Frontex’s training unit is to foster closer collaboration with external partners with regard to adopting EU training standards as per the Frontex-developed Common Core Curriculum (CCC). This of course leads to increased harmony between EU and non-EU systems and structures, which is in all our common interests. Naturally, candidate countries are most eager to take our suggestions on board, but non-candidate countries are also often very receptive. A concrete example in this regard would be the adoption of CCC norms in the West Balkans. These required changes to national laws, and this was done in Croatia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), which are both EU candidate countries, but also in Albania, which is not. So here we have seen some concrete progress, which is always encouraging.

It is also important to remember that our external relations team (Relex) does not only deal with third countries. We also have a unit responsible for relations with international organisations and NGOs, which are an important element of the work we do. Very often, bodies like UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) have active projects in countries of origin and transit and so working together with these organisations can also help achieve tangible results.