New Western Balkans hub for Europol and Frontex

Although the EU agencies can now cooperate more closely with selected third countries, there have hardly been any formats for the political and strategic agreement of border police measures outside the Schengen area. Austria has now created facts for South Eastern Europe.

After a two-day „Return Conference“, Austria’s Ministry of the Interior announced on Tuesday this week further measures of the „Joint Coordination Platform“ (JCP) „against illegal migration“. The network, which is only one year old, is to conclude „flexible return partnerships“ with Western Balkan states. Behind the term are deportations of people whose request for protection in the EU has been rejected or who decide to return „voluntarily“ for this reason.

At the invitation of the Minister of the Interior, Gerhard Karner (ÖVP), the governments of 22 countries met in the Vienna Hofburg to discuss the situation on the Eastern Mediterranean route and the so-called Balkan route. Among the participants were, besides the Western Balkan third countries, numerous EU members and Switzerland as the only Schengen state. The Union was represented by the Commission’s Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs, the border agency Frontex, the new Asylum Agency and the External Action Service.

Border projects with ex-Frontex vice president

The JCP, which was launched at the beginning of 2021, is based on the „Vienna Declaration“, adopted by Austria under the German EU Council Presidency in the summer of 2020 after a conference of 19 interior ministers at the „Salzburg Forum“. The then German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer called the platform an „early warning system“. It is to work closely with the EU agencies and coordinate their cooperation with the Western Balkan states.

Its tasks include monitoring and controlling the EU’s external borders as well as measures in third countries. To this end, the JCP founding states have promised support „in the core areas of border protection, return, combating the smuggling of migrants and the implementation of asylum procedures“. Discussions about a „distribution of asylum seekers within the EU“ are not part of this, emphasises the Austrian Ministry of the Interior; this so-called „relocation“ is thus „consistently rejected“ by the government.

Based in Vienna, the JCP has a secretariat headed by the former Frontex vice-president Berndt Körner. His deputy comes from the Czech Republic, and the Austrian receives further support from two officials from the German Federal Police and the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

Think tank with operational projects

The International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), which is based in Vienna as well, is also involved in the JCP. Founded in 1993, the institute is now headed by the former Austrian vice-chancellor Michael Spindelegger (ÖVP), who describes it as an „intergovernmental mediation platform and think tank for migration policy issues of the future“. However, at the latest with Spindelegger’s chairmanship, the ICMPD has left its role as a „think tank“ and now carries out numerous border projects on migration control in North Africa or the Western Balkans on behalf of the EU.

The Joint Coordination Platform now wants to establish a „regional return mechanism for the Western Balkans“ with the ICMPD. This is not only about deportations and „voluntary“ return measures to European third countries; the JCP is also to support the Western Balkan countries themselves in deportations. In this way, the platform assumes a hinge function for Frontex. Under its new regulation, the border agency is setting up a „Return Centre“ and organising charter flights for deportations from various EU member states, but is not allowed to do this on behalf of third countries (even if there is a status agreement with these countries). However, such a restriction does not apply to the ICMPD as one of the parties to the JCP.

One of the first measures of the JCP in 2020 was a coordinated deportation to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Austria invited the police there to attend training courses and to fly with „repatriation charters“. The knowledge imparted through this should „help the authorities of the Western Balkan state to comply with all rule of law standards“. This could now be further expanded. In Vienna this week, Bosnian Security Minister Selmo Cikotic proposed regional cooperation between individual states on repatriation. „Together with the EU“, he said, the Western Balkan states had moved „from a crisis situation to migration management“ in the area of migration.

Biometric database for the Western Balkans countries

Prior to the establishment of the JCP, EU interior ministers had adopted „Conclusions on strengthening cooperation with partners in the Western Balkans in the area of migration and security“. The text also calls on the individual governments of the Member States, the Commission as well as the agencies to increase cooperation, convergence of operational standards and capacities in the field of migration and security with the Western Balkans. All countries involved are to establish National Coordination Centres (NCC) for „efficient border management“ and connect them via a network. For operational cooperation, the third countries in South Eastern Europe are to set up a fingerprint database for asylum seekers, modelled on Eurodac; this is supported by the Commission in the framework of EU pre-accession assistance for candidate countries.

To implement the Council Conclusions, the EU Member States have launched various projects. For closer cooperation with the Western Balkan states as well as Turkey, the EU is funding the project „Fighting Migrant Smuggling by Establishing Common Operational Partnership in Europe with Third Countries“ (SCOPE), led by the German Federal Police. Sponsored by the Internal Security Fund, the project aims to combat „criminal organisations“ that smuggle refugees into the EU. The EU-funded project „Joint Expert Teams in Action“ was also extended to the Western Balkans in 2021. It aims to improve the ability of border authorities to detect document forgery, with police forces using smartphones with a „document checking and document advisory app“.

New steering groups on migration control

While the JCP primarily functions as a political and strategic steering platform for migration control, a centre for the coordination of police measures in the Western Balkans has also existed for several years. In 2016, the then Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka (ÖVP) opened a „Joint Operational Office against Human Smuggling Networks“ (JOO) for this purpose. For joint investigations in the Western Balkans, it works closely with the „European Migrant Smuggling Centre“ (EMSC) at Europol.

Similar to the JCP, the JOO, based at the Federal Criminal Police Office in Vienna, acts as a hub for the influence of EU agencies in the countries of the Western Balkans, as Europol would only be allowed such direct police cooperation with third countries to a limited extent. Police agencies of all EU member states on the Balkan route are involved in the JOO, as well as Germany (with the Federal Police), Italy, Poland, Sweden and Spain.

With the „Joint Coordination Platform“ for Western Balkan states, the EU is adding another node to its new steering groups on migration control. Since this year, cooperation with non-neighbouring countries such as Iraq, Niger or Tunisia has been organised through a „Mechanism of Operational Coordination for the External Dimension of Migration“ (MOCADEM), whereby the governments addressed are lured or put under pressure through various foreign policy measures. A likewise new „Schengen Council“ is to react to increasing „migration pressure“ at the EU’s external and internal borders. This is measured with a „barometer“, the border agency Frontex is considered the „spearhead“ of the new instrument.

Image: Ministers of the interior meeting in Vienna 2020 to decide upon JCG (BMI Österreich/ Karl Schober).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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