THE WEST - I
In 2005 a 'European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union' was brought into being. Behind this cumbersome, bureaucratic-sounding name lies a highly dynamic institution, which is supposed to make the EU's external border controls more robust and effective. At present it has a staff roughly a hundred strong and is planning for a pool of 500 to 600 border police, drawn from the member states and - a legal novelty - empowered to take on functions outside the EU. The agency also has at its disposal more than twenty aircraft, thirty helicopters and over a hundred ships, as well as elaborate equipment such as night vision devices and state-of-the-art laptops.
Since the official name is obviously too unwieldy, a catchier and evocative abbreviation has now been agreed upon: Frontex (from the French frontières extérieures ). It works closely with other agencies such as Europol, advises local border police at key areas of illegal migration, and assists in 'joint removal operations of third-country nationals illegally present in the Member States'. 1 Such persons are those who, having somehow reached an EU/Schengen country and been refused asylum, are liable to be shipped back or, in official parlance, 'repatriated' to their country of origin. 2
The Schengen Agreement, which came into force on 26 March 1995, has concentrated the frontier problem in states on the outer edges of the EU, passport-free travel now being the rule within the Schengen area. The 'country of origin regulation', however, requires asylum-seekers to give proof of political persecution if they come from a country classified as 'safe'; and the 'third country regulation' provides that individuals who have, for example, managed to reach southern Spain from Sierra Leone and then moved on to Germany may be summarily sent back to Spain and refused the right ever to apply for asylum in Germany. Not surprisingly this has stepped up the pressure on the EU's Spanish and Portuguese as well as East European frontiers, while applications for asylum in Germany have fallen by a quarter since 1995. But it also raises the question whether, in view of the rising numbers of refugees (set to rise even more as a result of future climate change), it will be possible to secure the EU's external frontiers as effectively as this is done at present.
Frontex, established by a decree of the European Council, chalked up some early successes - for example, a major cut in the number of refugee boats landing in the Canary Isles. The refugees who make the 1,200-kilometre journey, mostly by dinghy, across the open sea from West Africa to Gran Canaria or Tenerife come from countries where the existing conditions make life virtually impossible. Displaced by dam projects or civil war, they have drifted into megacities like Lagos, where 3 million people live in slums and there is neither running water nor a sewage system. There they pay smuggling gangs an exorbitant sum for a place on an overcrowded, barely seaworthy boat, with no return ticket and a high risk of not surviving the trip. 3 Even so, some 30,000 made it alive to the Canaries in 2006, posing considerable problems for the authorities and the tourism industry there.
Other refugees try the Straits of Gibraltar, which, though only 13 kilometres across, have strong currents and dense traffic that make them no less hazardous. Many fail to reach the shores of Spain or Portugal, and those who do are usually shipped straight back; it is estimated that some 3,000 drowned in the attempt in 2006 alone. Frontex takes account of this, by defining one of its important tasks as 'preventing illegal entry in life-threatening conditions'. 4
Since the reasons why refugees want to reach Europe at any pr