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Council Presidency and EU agencies want biometric databases for migrants and refugees in the Western Balkans
26.2.20
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The EU should help introduce the biometric registration of migrants and refugees travelling on the 'Balkan Route', according to the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU, as part of a series of measures to tackle the "threats arising from an increase in migratory flows and smugglers' networks".

The Croatian Presidency's note refers to the informal justice and home affairs meeting in Zagreb in January this year, where:

"Ministers discussed the possibility of stimulating the development by Western Balkan partners of national biometric registration/data-sharing systems on asylum applicants and irregular migrants. Such systems could be modelled on Eurodac. This would ensure that the systems are compatible, with a view to possible gradual integration into a regional system, and that they correspond to EU standards."

The proposals reflect recommendations made in a joint report drafted by Europol, Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), which argues for further repressive measures on the 'Balkan Route' due to an increase in migrant smuggling that is itself the result of the introduction of repressive measures, such as reinforced border controls.

See: NOTE from: Presidency to: Delegations: Combating migrant smuggling: current operational needs and enhancing cooperation with the WBs (5754/20, LIMITE, 14 February 2020, pdf)

And: Europol, Frontex and EASO: Tackling Migrant Smuggling in the Western Balkans: Illegal immigration along the Western Balkan Route and neighbouring countries, July 2018-June 2019 (pdf)

Information-sharing

Under the proposals to step up information-sharing, the Presidency also calls for Western Balkans states to increase their participation in joint police operations with EU states; for Europol to connect "CT [counter-terrorism] units, police investigation units, customs authorities, asset recovery offices, financial investigation units, border guards" to its SIENA information exchange network; and for more liaison officers to be deployed to the region.
Increase EU presence in the region

To achieve these demands, "active engagement" will be needed from the European Commission and the European External Action Service, and EU justice and home affairs agencies would need a heavier footprint in the region.

The Croatian Presidency calls for the swift deployment of a Europol liaison officer to Bosnia and Herzegovina - described as "a bottleneck area, where a number of irregular migrants are stranded" - in addition to the officer deployed in Albania and one arriving soon in Serbia.

Officials from states in the region should also travel in the other direction, suggests the note:

"Currently, Montenegro and North Macedonia have deployed liaison prosecutors to Eurojust; a similar measure by Serbia and Albania would have a positive impact on joint judicial investigations."

Social media monitoring "crucial"

Finally, the Presidency calls for the development of a new "social media monitoring mechanism" in order to replace an EASO-operated project that was shut down following an investigation by the European Data Protection Supervisor. EASO has no legal powers to process personal data.

The Croatian Presidency suggests that because:

"social media monitoring has therefore become pivotal to tackling migrant smuggling activities... it is crucial that the Commission and the relevant Agencies establish as soon as possible a social media monitoring mechanism, that will be in accordance with the data protection requirements, to contribute to an improved and updated threat picture."

Frontex recently cancelled a public tender for a social media monitoring project following an intervention from Privacy International. Europol is another possible candidate to set up a system to replace the one that was operated by EASO.

Vicious circle

The Croatian Presidency's are essentially cut-and-pasted from a joint report by Europol, Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) on migrant smuggling, which notes that because people on the move "need to bypass reinforced borders several times... the demand for facilitation services in the Western Balkans region is high."

The report is clear that the demand for smuggling services is a direct result of increased control measures, but the only possible responses it considers are further repressive measures. That this is only likely to lead to people taking increasingly risky journeys, putting the lives of themselves and others in danger, is not raised in the document.

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