Western Balkans: Clandestine connection to EU databases

Even without imminent EU accession, all third countries in South-East Europe will gradually be connected to European information systems. They will set up a fingerprint database along the lines of the EU model and, as in the Prüm Treaty, will make it possible to query biometric data. Secret services in the Western Balkans also use the Schengen Information System through a back door.

Albania, Northern Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro are EU accession candidates, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are considered potential candidate countries. All governments therefore receive so-called Pre-accession Assistance for the development of police and border police capabilities. They are based on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement that the countries have concluded with the EU.

The European Union now wants to significantly expand security cooperation with all the countries of the Western Balkans. One focus is on irregular migration. The governments in South-East Europe have already received 216 million Euros for their control since 2007, and funds of a similar amount have flowed into the construction and operation of camps for refugees. According to a proposal by the Croatian Council Presidency, the Western Balkan governments should now set up a biometric database for refugees. It will be based on the Eurodac database, in which EU member states process the fingerprints of asylum seekers. The two fingerprint systems could then be merged after possible EU accession. In addition to fingerprints, Eurodac also stores facial images, but they are not yet searchable.

Liaison officers from Frontex

The Eurodac database distinguishes three different categories. In category 1, asylum-seekers are stored when they make their first application, in order to determine the State responsible under the Dublin Convention in the event of a further migration to another country. This is probably of less interest to the six southern European third countries. Instead, storage is likely to be in categories 2 (irregular border crossing) and 3 (irregular stay on national territory). The system planned by the EU for the Western Balkan countries will then serve primarily to prosecute refugees.

The new fingerprint database is probably the result of an initiative by Frontex, which has been active in the Western Balkans for several years. The EU Border Agency is stationing so-called liaison officers there to facilitate the exchange of information,a first officer for the entire Western Balkan region has been sent to Serbia, others are to follow in the individual countries.

Help with deportations actually not permitted

Frontex is also interested in information on refugees in the Western Balkans. Without an agreement to this effect, however, third countries are not allowed to pass on their personal data, which is why EU agencies can initially only use depersonalised data, for example for statistics on migration movements. However, Frontex is concluding so-called status agreements with five Western Balkan states. Last year, Albania became the first third country ever to allow a Frontex operation on its territory. In Bosnia and Herzegovina such an agreement is currently failing due to the veto of a nationalist member of parliament. Because Kosovo has no border with an EU Member State, the Commission has not negotiated a status agreement with the government there.

The new Frontex mandate does not allow support for deportations from third countries, so the border agency may only organise the involuntary „return“ of refugees from EU Member States to Western Balkan states. However, Frontex is helping through the back door with workshops to organise deportations from South-East Europe to the home countries of those who are obliged to leave the countries. The authorities are trained by Frontex to obtain identity documents or to negotiate deportation agreements with the countries of origin of the refugees, following the EU model.

„Joint Action Plan“

In addition to border police cooperation, the EU is also intensifying assistance in police investigations. The competent authority for this is the police agency Europol. A „Joint Action Plan on counter terrorism for the Western Balkans“ defines five priority areas, including „countering violent extremism“ and „exchange of information and cooperation“. Concrete contents are discussed in „expert working groups“ with the European External Action Service, Europol and regional „security experts“ from Albania, Northern Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro. The EU Commission then draws up concrete measures for implementing the action plan.

Like Frontex, Europol has also seconded liaison officers for the Western Balkans. However, only one official is currently active in Albania. Communication with the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia is handled by Europol with another liaison officer from its headquarters in The Hague. In exchange all countries (with the exception of Bosnia and Herzegovina) have also seconded their own staff to Europol. Montenegro and Northern Macedonia are furthermore represented at Eurojust, the EU agency for judicial cooperation.

„Prüm Agreement for South-East Europe“

Strengthening cooperation with the Western Balkans was one of the main priorities of the then Austrian Presidency in 2018. Its climax was a „Prüm Agreement for South-East Europe“ on the automated exchange of DNA, fingerprint and vehicle registration data. The first signatories at that time included Albania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia, Austria, Romania, Serbia and Hungary. The agreement follows the EU Prüm decisions, which allow all Member States to query each other’s biometric data. Under the Romanian Presidency, the EU discussed initial provisions on the relationship of this „milestone agreement“ with the Western Balkan states with regard to the EU Prüm decisions, further issues were discussed under the Finnish Presidency.

In South-East Europe, in addition to the prosecution of illegal arms trafficking Europol is active in the area of „human smuggling“. Four years ago the Police Agency opened a liaison office in Vienna together with Austrian and German criminal investigation polices. Europol is also involved in the „Western Balkans Task Force“, in which Austria, Greece, Slovenia and Croatia participate. Since the EU Asylum Agency EASO is no longer allowed to monitor social media or messenger services for data protection reasons, Europol is now supposed to carry out this digital surveillance.

Europol also regularly coordinates joint days of action to track down irregular migrants at railway stations, airports or motorways. In „Operation Risk“, for example, the agency has identified almost 600 refugees on trucks. Similar measures will be further developed in 2020, with Europol staff increasingly using forensic equipment to read the mobile phones of refugees.

Help for secret services comes from the Czech Republic

The partner authorities in South-East Europe are now also using the Schengen Information System (SIS II). In this largest European police database, almost all Schengen states can issue overt or covert alerts on persons and objects. Under the new regulation, SIS II may also be used indirectly by third countries. They are not allowed to enter their own searches, but must find a SIS Member State willing to do so. According to a media report, entries by the Western Balkan states are made by authorities in the Czech Republic. These are secret searches for hundreds of so-called „foreign fighters“, which are carried out by secret services in accordance with Article 36 (3) of the SIS II Regulation.

However, the third country may not subsequently be informed of any hits because the SIS II Regulation prohibits such an outflow of information. A notification is therefore first sent to Europol, which is the only body authorised to communicate SIS II data to third parties under certain conditions. The authorities of the Western Balkan countries which issued the alert are then informed of this detour.

Further details of the new security cooperation will be decided at the Justice and Home Affairs Council to be held in Luxembourg at the beginning of June. Before, the Commission intends to present recommendations on „Stepping up our engagement with the Western Balkans“, which are to be formally adopted at the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb in May.

The plans include Europol monitoring social media in countries of the Western Balkans and stepping up forensic investigations of mobile phones of refugees (all rights reserved European Union).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.