Launched in February and named after the ancient Greek Titaness Themis, the newest EU maritime operation is designed to combat illegal migration and cross border crime in the Central Mediterranean. Saving lives at sea but also collecting intelligence on terrorists, criminals and smugglers, the European border and coast guard agency Frontex will direct the mission both from sea and from the reception centers in Italy where migrants first arrive.
The new mission will be covering a far larger area than any other Frontex operation before. Spanning its activities from the Eastern Mediterranean shores of Turkey to the banks of Morocco on the far West, and including countries who had been never before at the focus of the EU migration efforts at sea like Egypt, Albania, Tunisia or Algeria.
The reason behind the scoping of Themis is a new shift in migratory routes in the Mediterranean, detected by Frontex. Since July smuggler boats are increasingly sailing from Algerian and Tunisian coasts and in Morocco more and bigger boats are delivering migrants to Europe thus expanding the already existing migration routes to Europe.
According to Frontex’s annual risk report while the numbers of illegal migrants from Libya are declining, more departures are registered from the other Maghreb countries. The report says: “the number of migrants detected on the Western Mediterranean route hit a new record high in 2017, more than doubling the previous record of last year”.
We are adapting to changing patterns in migration flows, which are now increasingly coming from Algeria and Tunisia, Frontex spokesperson Ton van Lierop told the OMH.
To challenge the new routes Themis is expected to scale up closer to summer when the migratory flows start to rise again.
Depending on when the use of ships and planes is most necessary, we intend to use a similar number of technical equipment as in Operation Triton, Van Lierop adds.
Themis is expected to involve ships, planes and staff from 29 European countries (EU plus Norway). It replaces the earlier EU civilian mission Triton. Five surveillance aircraft and eleven ships were at the disposal of Triton, which was operative between November 2014 and January 2018.
Operation Themis differs from Operation Triton, as it covers a different and wider area. With Themis, for instance, the Adriatic Sea is covered as well”, Van Lierop said.
The mission is autonomous also from the other EU activity in the Mediterranean – the naval operation EUNAFOR Sophia, limiting shared activities only to information exchange. The two missions will be active in different parts in see with Themis patrolling closer to the European shore, leaving the high seas to the navy.
Sophia is a military operation, Frontex is a civilian organisation, supporting Italy with border control and law enforcement”, the board and coast agency spokesperson argues.
Focus on support for Italy
Themis is not going to work with the Northern African countries, although they are the major source or transit point of the illegal migration through the Mediterranean Sea. No cooperation is foreseen, neither legally, nor logistically. Frontex mission’s mandate makes such contact unnecessary as the operational area of Themis has moved closer to the Italian territorial waters (in the 30 miles zone) and the ships are not going to sail close to the North African shores.
Operation Themis aims to support the Italian authorities and will not cooperate directly with any of these countries”, Van Lierop says.
He says no migrants will be taken or disembarked on the territory outside of the EU countries, although Italy won’t be the sole pier for those saved in sea. Ports in Croatia, Malta, and Spain are likely also to be involved, contrary to the practice during Triton when all people went ashore in Italy:
On ships deployed by Frontex in the light of Operation Themis, there’s always an officer of the Italian Guarda di Finanza, who is responsible for border control, and an officer of the Italian coast guard, Guarda Costiera, for search and rescue matters. If a Search and Rescue operation is necessary, they take over and the responsible Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) takes the lead. This MRCC will then decide what will happen and where people will be brought on land, but it is not foreseen to bring people on land in third countries, outside the European Union”, Van Lierop explains.
While saving lives at sea remains the priority, Themis will perform more security checks to gather information and intelligence on terrorism and organized crime. “The new operation will have an enhanced law enforcement focus”, Frontex said.
Aris Amiri, the Tunisian who crashed a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016, leaving 12 dead and 49 injured, has been traced to a boat landed at the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2011.
The intelligence and information gathering will also be increased to help investigations on counter terrorism and organised crime, like drug smuggling. The information will be shared with the Italian authorities and the European police agency Europol.
We will focus on preventing criminal groups entering the European Union without being noticed. And tackling drug smuggling is extra important, for instance on the Adriatic Sea, where the Italian authorities have seen an increase of this form of crime”, Van Lierop says.
As part of Themis, border agency officers will perform intensified checks in the reception centres where migrants first arrive and file their asylum claims.
The smugglers, a long target of Frontex, are also in the sight of Themis:
“We have made very good progress in this field. Last year with the direct involvement of Frontex officers, over 170 suspected smugglers have been apprehended in Greece, Italy and Spain”, the agency spokesperson explains.
The agency has also provided information about people smugglers and human traffickers to Europol and the Italian and other authorities, based on which arrests were made.
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