Session 2010-11
Publications on the internet

To be published as HC 789-ii i




Home Affairs Committee


Tuesday 15 March 2011

General Ilkka Laitinen

[This evidence was taken by video conference]

Evidence heard in Public Questions 147 - 165



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Home Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 15 March 2011

Members present:

Rt Hon Keith Vaz (Chair)

Nicola Blackwood

Michael Ellis

Lorraine Fullbrook

Dr Julian Huppert

Steve McCabe

Alun Michael

Bridget Phillipson

Mr David Winnick


Examination of Witness

Witness: General Ilkka Laitinen, Executive Director, Frontex, gave evidence.

Q147 Chair: Good morning, General.

General Laitinen: Good morning, sir. Best regards from Warsaw.

Chair: Best regards from London. Thank you very much for participating in this. We have members of the Home Affairs Select Committee here, and we look forward to visiting Warsaw in the latter part of the year as part of our programme on the Justice and Home Affairs agenda, when Poland, of course, will have the historic opportunity of hosting the European Union. So we look forward to seeing you in person rather than on television.

General Laitinen: You are warmly welcome to visit Frontex as well.

Q148 Chair: Thank you. The Committee has just returned from a visit to Turkey, where we visited the Turkish, Bulgarian and Greek borders, and we are very keen at the session today to concentrate on the role of Frontex and what Frontex is doing. The session will last no more than 29 minutes.

Can I begin by asking you about the Greek-Turkish border? In your view, is this the last bit of the borders of the EU that needs to be secured? We know that there has been a great deal of focus on the border with Ukraine and the other borders of the EU. Do you see this as the last major entry point?

General Laitinen: Thank you very much for the question. Indeed, last year about 46% of all irregular immigration that was detected at the EU Member States’ external borders took place at the land border between Greece and Turkey. Also, in terms of the volume, it is a very big share of that; almost half of that. What we saw and witnessed last year was a rapid shift from maritime borders to land borders. Altogether last year, we saw about 80% of the detections that took place at the land borders of the EU Members States, while previously the majority took place at the maritime borders. There is no question but that Greece, and in particular the Greek-Turkish border, plays a key role when talking about border security, as about 90% of all detections at the EU Member States’ external borders took place in Greece, not only at the Greek-Turkish border but also at the Greek-Albanian border.

Q149 Chair: We will have other questions about the Greek situation, but can you tell me about Frontex’s view on the decision by the Greeks to build a barrier, fence or wall along the border with Turkey? Do you think that that was the right thing to do, and has that been productive in preventing people coming into the EU?

General Laitinen: I have to be very cautious when giving my view on the decisions or plans of Member States, but the EU Member States, including Greece, have to take a more comprehensive look at all the measures that are needed to tackle irregular immigration and cross-border crime. That includes co-operation with third countries; it includes the activities that are happening at the border-modi operandi, technical surveillance systems and so on. I have not seen a well-functioning wall system-I think about the situation at the US-Mexican border or elsewhere-that could considerably facilitate the effectiveness and the cost-effectiveness of that. So I am a little bit reserved on building a fence with a view to preventing irregular immigration.

Q150 Michael Ellis: Good morning, General. Could I ask you, sir, what practical measures does Turkey need to undertake in your view, in the view of Frontex, to meet the standards that the European Union has set for border control? Are you doing anything at Frontex to support the Turkish authorities in that regard?

General Laitinen: Turkey is one of the candidate countries to join the European Union. The EU has rather clear criteria when it comes to border security and the basis is with the Schengen acquis. There are certain measures that have to be taken prior to accession, and then there is a follow-up system finally to verify if the internal border checks can be abolished. This particular question cannot be approached by taking one or another trick. The question is about the whole structure, starting from the logistical measures, practical measures, and then also about the effectiveness of the border control system as a whole. I do not see any particular differences between the other Schengen partners or those who would like to join the club.

Q151 Michael Ellis: Thank you. How concerned are you that if Turkey were to join the European Union, the Union would have a border with Iraq, Iran and Syria? Is it possible in those circumstances to apply effective border controls along those borders?

General Laitinen: I am not the perfect person to answer this type of question. Normally I refrain from making statements about "what would happen if", but Turkey really plays a very important role, given the figures that I mentioned already, and it is the main route for the time being for irregular immigration towards the EU Member States. As I said, 46% of irregular immigration was detected at the land border between Greece and Turkey: that is quite a figure, amounting to almost 50,000 cases per year.

Q152 Lorraine Fullbrook: Good morning, General. Could I ask you why you do not want to give your views on security on the border with Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria?

General Laitinen: I think the key reason is that I am not a political person; I am a practitioner, and the policy that Frontex is applying is not to fall too much on speculation. That is the policy that we have adopted and this is what I am following in this case as well.

Q153 Lorraine Fullbrook: Do you think it would be possible to apply effective controls?

General Laitinen: At the border between Turkey and Greece or-

Lorraine Fullbrook: No, between Turkey and Iran, Iraq and Syria.

General Laitinen: This is too large a question to be specific enough on, but in the case that Turkey would like to join the European Union, the criteria that are established by the Schengen regime apply to this country as well.

Q154 Alun Michael: What sort of impact have you had through the Rapid Border Intervention Team? We are being told that there has been no short-term reduction in migration along the Greek-Turkish border, but that there is likely to be a medium and long-term reduction. It does not seem terribly likely. What effect are you having?

General Laitinen: What is worth mentioning here is that we already had the biggest Frontex co-ordinated operation going on at the Greek-Turkish border prior to the launch of the Rapid Border Intervention Team operation there. It happened very rapidly last summer when the figures at the Greek-Turkish land borders started to soar. The reason why the Rapid Border Intervention Team was launched was really to give them an extra injection in order to have an impact on that. Likewise, even though the RABIT operation is now over, we have a considerably strong operation going on.

Q155 Alun Michael: Sorry, with respect, you are telling me about the operation. I was asking you about its effect. What effect has it had?

General Laitinen: This is right, and I am now going to give you certain figures on all that. If we compare the starting point of the RABIT operation in the beginning of November with the situation now, we saw a reduction-a decrease of 76% in the detections of irregular immigrants at that border. Another feature that illustrates the impact is that more than 90% of the irregular immigrants are being screened. So we have screened and interviewed these people, but even today, the figures for daily apprehensions at that border are considerably high and that is why the operation is going on.

I would like to mention that we must avoid the perception that border control is the solution for tackling irregular immigration there. It is a part of the solution, and we are doing our best to really have an impact in this entire package.

Q156 Alun Michael: Well, indeed. It would be useful if you could supplement those figures and give us as much factual information as possible.

I wonder whether, in fact, the role and the focus of Frontex should be changed. We have heard evidence that illegal immigrants detained after entering Greece are held and then released in Greece rather than being returned to their country of origin. That gives the impression that Frontex, both in the original operation and in the fast response, are being asked to work at closing the door after the horse has bolted. Would it not be better to work on the other side of the border and help the Turkish authorities, especially as they seem to have a very high commitment and are making efforts to help the EU by preventing this traffic? Would not an investment of time there be more effective?

General Laitinen: I think it is not either/or, it is both. By following the Integrated Border Management Strategy of the EU as much as we can, before the border and across the border and at the border, we are doing better. It is not a secret that the level of co-operation in operational terms between Greece and Turkey, and between the other European Union Member States and Turkey, is not yet satisfactory. We are doing our utmost to improve that and to strengthen that, but this is the way it goes.

Q157 Alun Michael: Is Frontex directly engaged with the Turkish authorities?

General Laitinen: Certainly. I have had for almost four years a mandate to negotiate a bilateral operation agreement, as we call them, or a working arrangement, with the Turkish authorities and we have witnessed considerable development in this regard and we will see any day now the agreement initialled and signed.

Q158 < Alun Michael: Just one other thing. Have you noticed any increase in immigration along the Aegean Sea border since the period of the RABIT intervention?

General Laitinen: There was a very rapid decrease on the figures at the Aegean Sea and the last figures from this year are really far from the top figures on that. We have so far scored some hundreds of cases. If we compare it to the previous year, by this time of year we were already in four digits.

Q159 Bridget Phillipson: Could you expand in greater detail on the dealings you had with the Turkish authorities during the RABIT operation?

General Laitinen: The approach that we took vis-a-vis the Turkish authorities during the RABIT operations, and previously, was that we kept them informed of our plans and our undertakings. Frequently, in the course of the operation, we informed them and briefed them on the results and we persistently encouraged them to take additional measures, which they did, and that was one of the reasons why the figures gradually went down. In the course of the RABIT operation we witnessed an increase in the activities of the Turkish authorities on their side of the border.

Q160 Bridget Phillipson: How would you respond to the suggestion that it might be more effective to give the funding for Frontex operations directly to the Greek or Turkish authorities in order for them to build capacity within their own countries?

General Laitinen: I think we need to take the whole picture to the table at once. We have to keep it in mind that the responsibility for patrolling the borders is with the European Union Member States. When it comes to funding from the national budgets of EU Member States and from the EU external borders fund, compared to the compensation that comes from the Frontex budget, we play a very marginal role in that. If we would like to strengthen EU funding, the Frontex budget is not the primary instrument for that, and I know that there are deliberations when the new financial perspectives come up for debate to focus more on that. When we speak about funding, the Frontex budget is only an instrument to compensate the participation of the other Member States who are taking part in the joint operation co-ordinated by Frontex.

Q161 Lorraine Fullbrook: General, I would like to ask a bit more about how Frontex work will change with the move to Operation Poseidon Land, and what you are doing to secure funding. Frontex funding has been reduced, has it not?

General Laitinen: Our financial resources have never been a bottleneck in operational co-operation. We keep these three issues always together-the first one is the voluntary participation of the EU Member States in joint operations, then Frontex personnel do the preparatory work, and thirdly comes the budget of Frontex. It is by this triangle that our impact is to be ensured.

For the time being, our most challenging area is our staffing. It is not a secret that all the European Union institutions and agencies must follow the so-called zero growth policy for the time being. Particularly today, when the North African situation is what it is, that creates a huge demand for preparatory work, analytical work and the different preparatory work for joint operations carried out by Frontex. Another feature is that our budget is used in a way that is called co-financing, and that means that we have the possibility to adjust the whole financing watershed-what belongs to the Member States and what is co-financed by our budget. So that is not a critical point when we are talking about the budget of Frontex, but it is part of this trinity, as I mentioned before.

Q162 Lorraine Fullbrook: Thank you, General, but you have not explained how your operation will change from the rapid intervention teams to Operation Poseidon Land.

General Laitinen: The only difference between the previous operation, Land Borders Poseidon, and the RABIT operation and the follow-up, which is now again in the format of this traditional joint operation called Land Border Poseidon, is the role of the EU Member States. When the RABIT system is launched, the Member States have an obligation to participate in it, whereas the standard type of operation is based on the volition of the Member States. The calibre and volume of the Land Border Poseidon operation are approximately at the same levels as they were in the last moments of the RABIT operation. The only difference was the status of the Member States when joining this operation.

Q163 Dr Huppert: General, can I ask about the EU-Turkey readmission agreement that seems to have stalled somewhat recently ? I am not going to ask you about how progress is going- I know that is no t something that you deal with- but how much of an effect do you think the signing of a readmission agreement between Turkey and the EU would have on irregular immigration?

General Laitinen: I think a readmission agreement, especially a well-functioning readmission agreement, is one of the success factors in tackling irregular immigration. We have seen it in many other areas as well. It is worth mentioning that Greece and Turkey already have a readmission agreement in place, but the level of implementation is far from perfect. If the European Union and Turkey are able to sign a readmission agreement and it is applied in a proper way, there is no doubt that it will have a positive impact on the overall fight against irregular immigration and other negative cross-border features.

Q164 Dr Huppert: I am interested to hear you say that, because one of our previous witnesses, Dr Düvell, said that it would make very little difference because the agreement would not cover those who claim asylum in the EU. Do you not think that is a problem?

General Laitinen: Now we are moving on to the functioning of the Dublin II system, and we all know that there are considerable challenges in the application of that and that many countries have suspended application. That applies among the EU Member States, as the system goes. A discussion could be launched about whether there is a need for an internal readmission agreement between EU Member States while Dublin II is only about the asylum seekers. When it comes to the readmission agreement between the EU and Turkey, and also third countries, it is very important that it should cover not only the nationals of the interlocutors but third country nationals. I would like to repeat once again: having a well-functioning readmission agreement in place is among the key factors for a successful fight against irregular immigration.

Q165 Chair: General, we hope to visit you, as I say, in the latter part of the year, but one of the things that is of concern to this Committee is whether Frontex has enough people to do the job that the EU expect you to do. The expectations are very high, especially with what is happening now in North Africa. When we were in Istanbul there were boatloads of people coming from Libya, for example, and we know from our newspapers this morning that people are getting to Malta and then going to Greece. I spoke this morning with the Greek Ambassador to London and they really do need much more help from the EU in order to police their borders, and that of course means Frontex. Maybe this is an easy question to you, but do you think that you need an increase in your budget from the EU in order to deal with the operational aspects of the work that you do? I notice in your budget that almost a quarter is spent on administrative staff and only half of the budget appears to be spent on operational matters. Do you think we have the balance right as far as Frontex is concerned?

General Laitinen: We are, for the time being, monitoring very carefully and with increasing intensity the situation in North Africa. Likewise, we have created different plans that would respond to different scenarios. If this kind of urgent and exceptional situation continues, that obviously means additional financial resources as well. The plan that we have for the time being-this is one of the topics for the extraordinary management board meeting of Frontex tomorrow-is that we are prepared to double our operational intensity, which would certainly mean additional financial means, and I have already given a pre-warning to the budget authority on that.

I would like to also mention the persisting figure, this 30% of administrative work. The real figure is 18% if the salaries of purely operational staff of Frontex are included in this figure, because the 30% figure comes from the overall expenditure that we use for salaries, and the vast majority of my staff here in Warsaw are very operational people and that is the core business. But certainly, if this system continues at the higher level of intensity, we need to take additional measures to secure not only financial resources but extra staffing, to carry out this operational work within the agency.

Chair: General, thank you very much. We look forward to meeting you again when the Committee comes to Warsaw as part of the presidency. Thank you very much. Good morning.

General Laitinen: Thank you very much and feel most welcome to visit Frontex. It was my pleasure. Thank you so much.