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29 Nov, 2015

Schengen: Border-control agency Frontex seeks access to security databases

by Maria Vasileiou

THE HAGUE, Nov. 25 (Xinhua) — Without access to security database tools necessary for detecting terrorist threats, Frontex is forced to limit its controls of irregular immigrants at Schengen zone external borders to a minimum check with identity registering, said Fabrice Leggeri, executive director of the European external border agency, in an interview with Xinhua.

As head of Frontex, the agency of the European Union (EU) established in 2004 to manage cooperation between national border guards securing its external borders, Leggeri advocates for a more ambitious European border management policy. He called on EU member states to grant Frontex more autonomy and more room for manoeuvres.

“Under current rules Frontex has no access to security and criminal databases in order to run systematic security controls to ensure that documents used by immigrants arriving at the European Union’s external borders are fully checked,” said Leggeri, reached over phone by Xinhua.

In the wake of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, EU justice and interior ministers had agreed to grant Frontex access to security databases, as part of a package of emergency measures. But according to Leggeri, Frontex might have to wait as long as a year to implement security checks.

“The consultation of these databases by Frontex staff can only be possible with a revision of the agency’s mandate which might take a year to come into effect,” explained Leggeri.

It was also agreed by the EU governments that systematic controls should be done for all EU citizens and Schengen visa holders at the external borders. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, who was a Belgian citizen, had travelled unhindered from Syria to Paris to launch the deadliest terror attacks.

However, under current working conditions, Frontex can not gather information linking immigration to terrorism, Leggeri said.

The databases that Frontex should have access to include the Schengen Information System (SIS), the stolen document database (SLTD), and the Visa Information System (VIS), and a watch list with the details of about 4,000 foreign Islamic State (IS, or ISIS, or ISIL) fighters.

Checking immigrants’ documents against these databases is considered crucial to address terrorist threats after it emerged that at least two of the Paris attackers, posing as refugees fleeing the Syrian war, passed through Greece, one of them also through Serbia. “Frontex was not involved in this screening (of these two attackers),” said Leggeri.

On the encouraging side, the Greek authorities are in contact with Interpol to see how to deploy devices to have access to certain databases, the Frontex chief told Xinhua. Greek inland is among the preferred passage for thousands of refugees trying to enter the EU every day.

And, Frontex will share the information it gathered by Frontex debriefs with the EU’s law enforcement agency Europol. The process, which also aims at detecting suspicious travels of foreign terrorist fighters and smuggling of firearms, will start soon, said Leggeri, who is expecting a green light from the European data protection supervisor before the end of this month.

Frontex, based in Warsaw, Poland, will also deploy a liaison officer in Ankara by the end of the year. “Turkey’s role is crucial in keeping the refugees from crossing to the Greek islands,” said Leggeri.

As the refugee crisis escalated, Frontex has stepped up activity at the Greek borders with Turkey to ensure along with Greek authorities that refugees trying to cross would be registered and fingerprinted.

Since the beginning of the year Frontex has registered more than 620,000 illegal border crossings coming through the eastern route from Turkey to Greece.

Earlier in October, Frontex had asked EU Member States and Schengen Associated Countries to provide 775 border guards. So far, member states have agreed to provide 441 officers.

A proposal by the European Commission suggests the creation of a new European border and coast guard service under Frontex’s competence, which will allow Frontex greater scope in increasing its guards’ capacity needed in bigger operations.

Leggeri, the 47-year-old French who took over Frontex for a five-year term since January 2015, hailed this development. In the meantime, he called on EU member states to work towards granting Frontex more operational autonomy.

“Currently Frontex can assess the relevance of an operation but cannot launch one,” he said. For him, Frontex needs more leverage to decision making, to convincing member states of the need of an operation.