EU launches new task force to protect bloc's borders

A watchtower behind a barbed wire fence near the Kapitan Andreevo border crossing point between Bulgaria and Turkey.
A watchtower behind a barbed wire fence near the Kapitan Andreevo border crossing point between Bulgaria and Turkey. PHOTO: AFP
EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos (right) and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov at the inauguration ceremony of the new European Border and Coast Guard task force at the Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint on Oct 6, 2016.
EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos (right) and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov at the inauguration ceremony of the new European Border and Coast Guard task force at the Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint on Oct 6, 2016. PHOTO: AFP
German policemen, Bulgarian Border guards and members of the new European Border and Coast Guard task force attend an inauguration ceremony at the Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint on Oct 6, 2016.
German policemen, Bulgarian Border guards and members of the new European Border and Coast Guard task force attend an inauguration ceremony at the Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint on Oct 6, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

KAPITAN ANDREEVO, Bulgaria (AFP) - The EU launched its beefed-up border force on Thursday (Oct 6) in a rare show of unity by the squabbling bloc as it seeks to tackle its worst migration crisis since World War II.

European Union officials inaugurated the new task force at the Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint on the Bulgarian-Turkish border, the main land frontier for migrants seeking to enter the bloc and avoid the dangerous Mediterranean sea crossing.

The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCG) will have at its disposal some 1,500 officers from 19 member states who can be swiftly mobilised in case of an emergency, like a sudden surge of migrants.

Brussels hopes the revamped agency will not just increase security, but also help heal the huge rifts that have emerged between member states clashing over the EU's refugee policies.

The long-term goal is to lift border controls inside the bloc and fully restore the passport-free Schengen Zone.

"The new agency is stronger and better equipped to tackle migration and security challenges," EBCG director Fabrice Leggeri said at the launch.

The force will also conduct stress tests at the bloc's external borders to "identify vulnerabilities before a crisis hits", he added.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos hailed the launch as a "historical day for the European Union".

"From now onwards, the external EU border of one member state is the external border of all member states - both legally and operationally," he said. "Countries like Bulgaria, Greece and Italy are still under pressure, but they are not alone."

As part of its expanded mandate, the EBCG will be involved in the repatriation of migrants who have their asylum claims rejected or are considered a security threat.

Its new coast guard unit will also "play a key role at Europe's maritime borders", Mr Leggeri said.

A growing number of desperate people attempt the treacherous sea journey from North Africa to Italy, after the so-called Balkan migrant trail was shut earlier this year.

More than 3,500 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year, the latest figures show.

All 28 member states agreed on the creation of the new border agency earlier this year.

The boosted force is an expansion of Frontex, founded in 2004 to help coordinate Europe-wide efforts to combat people smuggling and illegal migration.

But the Warsaw-based agency proved inefficient last year when it was caught off guard by the hundreds of thousands of people who began trekking up from Greece across the western Balkans towards northern Europe.

With limited staffing and powers, Frontex was unable to effectively patrol the EU's external borders, including those of frontline countries Greece and Italy, where most migrants enter. The relaunched agency will have an annual budget of 320 million euros (S$491 million).

The uncontrolled arrival of well over one million people, many fleeing war in Syria, triggered chaos on the continent, prompting key transit nations along the migrant trail to seal their borders with fences.

The influx also heightened tensions inside the bloc, with eastern and central European nations lambasting Germany's "open-door" policy, which they say allowed Islamist radicals to pose as refugees and help to carry out attacks inside Europe.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov warned on Thursday that the EU had become "an assortment of jumbled fences".

"We do not want turn Europe into a fortress, but we want to turn it into a well regulated system," he said.

Bulgaria has built up a barbed wire fence that will soon cover most of its 259-kilometre-long border with Turkey.

Just 13,000 migrants remain stranded inside Bulgaria compared to the 60,000 stuck in Greece and the 140,000 who have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy so far this year.

But with Bulgaria's migrant centres overflowing, the EU's poorest member is still worried it will become a "buffer state" if a shaky EU deal with Ankara breaks down after the July coup attempt.

Turkey is home to three million migrants who have fled the devastating war in neighbouring Syria.

"Turkey has to remain a strategic partner for us. No other country can deal with this number of migrants," Mr Borisov said.