Can Europe stay border-free internally if it can’t guarantee its shared external border? That’s one of the key questions facing the European Union as it struggles with the ongoing migrant and refugee crisis. As Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov put it in 2016: Schengen cannot survive if Europe becomes “a yard with a broken fence”.

Currently, the external border of the EU is patrolled by the border and coast guards of the various Member States, supported by and in coordination with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (more commonly known as ‘Frontex’). Recently re-tooled and re-launched in 2016, Frontex now has an annual budget of over €300 million euros. Which seems like a lot of money. However, by comparison, the United States Coast Guard on its own (i.e. not including US Border Patrol) has an annual budget of more than €8 billion.

The comparison is perhaps a little unfair on Frontex. The US Coast Guard is estimated to be the 12th largest navy in the world, and is regularly deployed in armed conflicts internationally. Nevertheless, would a single European agency with a larger budget be more effective at policing Europe’s coastal waters?

In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis will be on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.

This week, we are looking at Lampedusa, Italy. For a long time, Lampedusa has been famous as an island on the “frontlines” of the refugee crisis. The numbers of people reaching Italian waters by boat does seem to be slowing; less than 11,000 people reached Lampedusa in the whole of 2016. Nevertheless, roughly 400,000 people have arrived there over the last two decades, while an estimated 15,000 have died attempting the crossing.

Curious to know more about the European Border and Coast Guard Agency? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).

What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Dennis, who very much supports the idea of a European Coastguard. He believes there would be real public support for Europeanising border control, presumably to an even greater extent than Frontex does today. Is he right?

To get a response, we spoke to Judith Sunderland, Associate Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. What would she say to Dennis?

Yeah, it took quite a while for EU countries to accept the Frontex “reloaded”, which is what we have now – which is the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. But, of course, it is true that that agency depends on contributions from Member States and its autonomy is limited. There’s a clear reason for that: Many countries don’t want to give up their sovereignty. Border control is seen very much as the sovereign right of individual Member States; Cooperation at the EU level is certainly promoted and pursued, but most EU countries feel quite strongly about retaining a high level of sovereignty.

From my perspective, the response of the EU on migration and refugee flows has always been focused primarily on border control: How to close the borders, how to prevent the boats arriving, how to limit the number of people getting across land borders. Relatively little attention has been paid to ensuring the rights of those people both at the borders and within EU territory, and very little attention paid to expanding safe and legal channels so that fewer people have to resort to unlawful and dangerous ways to get to the EU.

I would say that all border control attempts have to be based on law and have to be respectful of people’s rights. That’s one of the reasons I was so distressed when they adopted the new Border and Coast Guard regulations, because they actually struck out a proposal to include in the mandate of the new agency search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. One of the most appalling facets of this whole phenomenon is deaths at sea in the Mediterranean. It is our view, shared by many others, that the EU and individual Member States have done very little to prevent those deaths, with the exception of Italy which has done a tremendous amount (though it is changing its tune quite rapidly these days).

So, border control: Yes. Every country has a sovereign right to control its borders and decide who can remain on its territory. But those procedures and mechanisms have to be based on law and governed by respect for people’s lives.

To get another perspective, we put the same comment to Marco Rotunno, Communication / PI Associate for Sicily at UNHCR Italy. What would he say?

This is a broader discussion that is also linked to both rescue boats and NGO boats (which are considered by some parts of public opinion to be a “pull factor” for refugees). I think this discussion on border control misses the broader picture including the “push factors”; i.e. the things pushing people out of their countries of origin. I’m talking about unstable countries where there is no official war – like in Syria – but where the country is very unstable and has militias, like Libya, for instance, or Nigeria, where part of the country has many refugees because of Boko Haram. It’s a very unstable situation that brings a lot of people to Libya who then to try to cross the sea.

That said, for us, at that moment, rescuing lives at sea is necessary and compulsory, it’s not debatable. So, for us, the most important thing is that less lives are lost – because still the number is very high even with the EU presence and some NGOs, still there are lives lost in this crossing.

Nevertheless, if you explore different solutions than just border control then there would be less people facing the only option of attempting a crossing. We speak with them when they arrive at the ports in Sicily, and they say they had no other option. There are people stranded in terrible conditions in Libya, who have had to pay smugglers multiple times. So, if people go to Libya, also solutions should be found before they try their only option for now. Give them protection; identify the most vulnerable people and resettle them from there, which is also another solution.

Should Europe have a single, common coast guard? Or are national coast guards (in coordination with Frontex) enough? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

The Debating Europe “Cities & Refugees” project is co-funded by the European Union’s “Europe for Citizens” program.
IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe
The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsi­ble for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

78 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

    • avatar

      Who is going to pay for it?
      Where will be their headquarters?
      What will be their manpower?
      What powers will they have?
      What laws will they enforce?
      What type of weapons and equipment will they operate?
      Who will command them?
      What will be their budget?
      What happens to the people they arrestM
      What happens to the people they rescue?
      What happens when a coast guard officer cimmits a crime?
      It’s not as simple as “It should already have one!

    • avatar
      Tsvetan Tsekov Steven

      But sime countries are EU outer borders while others r surrounded by only by EU/Schengen countries…and third don’t even have water boarders…

    • avatar
      Tsvetan Tsekov Steven

      The thing is once some dangerous people are in-they can travel around the Union relatively easily and thus the each EU country is endangered.

    • avatar
      Stefania Portici

      Tsvetan Tsekov Steven noi non abbiamo immigrati di seconda e terza generazione come li ha la Francia ad esempio. Prima del 2011 l’immigrazione era controllata con gli accordi .Li hanno fatti saltare gli accordi ( “grazie” Francia e Inghilterra) e poi con le ONG ci hanno riempiti di tutto. L’Italia non ha messo a rischio la UE , nè prima nè dopo. Chi ci ha fatti trovare nei guai ……mi fido di più del mio Paese che ha avuto sempre buon senso

    • avatar
      Paul X

      @ Stefania Portici, why all the vitriol directed at England (UK)? …the UK decided not to sign up to Schengen and it was the best decision we ever made, don’t try and blame us for the naivety of your own government

    • avatar

      @Paul X The only thing UK have made since the beginning is taking the benefits of being in the European Union without the drawbacks. And even with that special treatment the United Kingdom decided to leave. Must say that i’m glad you guys did.

    • avatar
      Paul X


      So you don’t think being the third highest net contributor to the EU budget entitles us to any of the benefits? ……. if we have been getting any “special treatment” then clearly we have been paying for it (unlike the majority of EU countries)…. tbh I can’t think of any treatment I would consider special, we avoided the politically naïve Schengen and Euro projects but that was just common sense on our part….. so maybe you can enlighten me on what other “special treatment” you consider we have received?

  1. avatar
    Bódis Kata

    The European Coastal and Border Guard was launched last year. They act like an expensive and glorified welcome committee. I wouldn’t trust them to boil water for tee.

    Every country must have own capabilities.

  2. avatar
    John Davis

    Don’t forget it’s takes the ruling elite 20 years to talk about it let alone do anything.

  3. avatar
    Franck Legon

    As there is no comon imigration policy to the sovereign member states, this might be difficult to do.

    • avatar
      Mário Lobo

      How would you call a Portuguese guy living and working in Luxembourg?

    • avatar
      Edita Buržinskaitė

      I meant islamic migrants, relax, Mario. You know what I was talking about.

    • avatar
      Edita Buržinskaitė

      Yes yes, I know, throwing around dictionary definitions is very common in such arguments. And also lame. :p But you know what I meant because we talked about this. Perhaps I should have been more specific in my comment but people in similar topics will normally understand because they know the current political context.

    • avatar
      Mário Lobo

      I do… and the qualification of migrants is deceitful.
      It promotes a society of castes.

    • avatar
      Edita Buržinskaitė

      You do, awesome. I’m not here to argue about the qualification of migrants or “castes”, this isn’t India. My point is simple: we do not need more Islam, period, we need less. A lot less.

    • avatar
      Mário Lobo

      So.. it’s not about “migrants”. You know that Christians represented 12% of Syria’s population before the war?

    • avatar
      Edita Buržinskaitė

      You knew from the start it was about very specific migrants, so let’s drop this one already. Christians are alright. But the majority of the migrants from the Middle East and Africa are neither Syrians, nor Christians. It’s an overwhelmingly young islamic male contingent, coming in by the thousands because they heard about the good life and generous benefits in Europe. And along they bring their so-called “culture”. Or rather the lack thereof.

  4. avatar
    Martin van Boven

    No. “Europe” should only work together on trade, not on matters in national security or culture.
    In this case, and so many like it, international cooperation is more than sufficient, and prevents turning Europe into a de facto federation, something only deluded Eurocrats want.

    • avatar
      Stefania Portici

      per lavorare sul commercio come dici tu , bisogna togliere l’euro altrimenti lavora solo la Germania a danni degli altri ……68.000 morti solo in Italia far commerciare la Germania non bastano ? O è qualcosa di più di un mercato o BASTA !

    • avatar
      Stefania Portici

      per lavorare sul commercio come dici tu , bisogna togliere l’euro altrimenti lavora solo la Germania a danni degli altri ……68.000 morti solo in Italia per far commerciare la Germania non bastano ? O è qualcosa di più di un mercato o BASTA non ne possiamo più

    • avatar
      Stefania Portici

      comunque a me una cosa tipo CEE come era prima ,ognuno con la sua Costituzione , senza euro con una moneta sovrana nazionale non a cambio fisso è l’ideale

  5. avatar
    Stefania Portici

    sono diminuiti gli immigrati qui da noi ma da poco più di una settimana , è presto. Il mondo è diventato un disastro , il clima che si respira è di forte tensione e non è questione (solo) di cambiamento climatico a creare immigrati ma l’economia sbagliata imposta sui Paesi …porta .povertà anche in Paesi ricchi di risorse, viene derubata la vita . Se il mondo non si indigna davanti alla sofferenza e lo grida , il potere ( internazionale, mondiale ) non si ferma ,fa affari con tutto anche con ll traffico di vite umane .Il mio Paese agisce bene , povera Italia mia , ma siamo tanto stanchi . Noi stiamo facendo la nostra parte per il bene comune e per il giusto , voi vedete di fare la vostra di parte

  6. avatar
    Dennis Anastassiou

    European Integration in practice has proven to be riddled with hurdles.
    Common Coast Guard could be a huge step forward as its core role (a public humanitarian service, fishery protection, border patrol – different to military operations from which most European still consider a National privilege) would boost public acceptance.

    Provided there will be a closely monitored budget (we all know how expensive running the EU is ) I have no doubt in my mind common Coast Guard will be the first truly and widely accepted European Integration Service.

    So, transparent expenses, wise management, public service oriented, we have a winner…

    Very interesting, I would love to be part of this…

    16/10/2017 Judith Sunderland, Associate Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, has responded to this comment.

    16/10/2017 Marco Rotunno, Communication / PI Associate for Sicily at UNHCR Italy, has responded to this comment.

    • avatar
      Stefania Portici

      quello che hai detto non è possibile , un conto è il sogno un altro è la realtà. La realtà è che gli immigrati del continente africano e del medio oriente ….passano SOLO dall’Italia , la Turchia è pagata per chiudere di là. Arrivano qui dalle ONG private …ci sei ? Tutti qui in Italia ok ? Questi immigrati il 90% è immigrato economico e voi non li prendete perchè giustamente non hanno diritto , indietro…… il Paese suo non li riprende ….significa che su 10 che arrivano, 9 restano in Italia …che ci volete far scoppiare ? Ci avete provato a fare anche questo ! .Chi deve essere soccorso , deve essere soccorso e chi ha diritto di rimanere resta ,

  7. avatar
    Tony Muñiz

    Coast guard……guard….GUARD!… Not doing much of a guard. Coastal migrant taxi service would be a more accurate description.

  8. avatar
    Kester Ratcliff

    Frontex and EuroNavFor are mainly there for informing Turkish and Libyan coastguards where to come and get refugee boats and forcibly return them to those countries, where they are are unlikely to be safe- especially in Libya, the abuses are extreme. That’s actually illegal, but governments see their role now as managing popular sentiments not dealing with facts or law.

  9. avatar
    Paweł Kunio

    They should have common external border guard including coast guard in the south. Like with many other projects having common language would help. Also the common coast guard could send back the boats with refugees back to north africa and Turkey. Then one could resolve the problem of illegals and let them apply when residing (temporarily for example) there.

  10. avatar
    Stefano Zuzzi

    Depending by state to state,
    at least just a few countries such a Spain, France, Italy, Grece got involved but meanwhile Spain has many problem to take Att.n off the Ceuta from where they’re coming from.
    By the time that Lybia is till into its disturbances , we can just expect a pluribus unum coast guard in which any country would inevitable be involved but, try to tell it to the countries governments .

    • avatar
      José Bessa da Silva

      Not with my taxes. Expect Lisbon’s parliament burning before any such idiocy is imposed on us.

  11. avatar
    Mauricio Giordanelli

    Yes. Having separate coast guards is schizophrenic, and it places an undue burden on the border countries who are later attacked by the selfish and ignorant politicians of inland countries who are happy to sit back and do nothing to help.

  12. avatar
    Stefania Portici

    NO, se gli sbarchi di tutti GLI IMMIGRATI vengono portati solo nel mio Paese , non può essere una organizzazione privata a farlo che di umanitario ha il dio denaro, deve essere la marina militare e la guardia costiera del Paese che li soccorre. Un conto è l’eccezione e un altro è la regola

  13. avatar
    Joe Grixti

    Yes.. WE must have one Navy.. One Army…and harrying up… WORK FOR UNITED STATES OF EUROPE..

    • avatar
      Paul X

      ..and who will be in charge of these? Armed forces need a clearly defined command and control structure. Considering all the separate agendas within the EU and it’s approach of “managing everything by committee” will mean any EU forces will probably never be deployed and will be useless for anything except for marching around the parade ground to the sound of ode to joy with the blue starred flag flapping in the breeze

  14. avatar
    Tiromanzino May

    Do you mean a big massive low cost travel agency for illegal migrants paid with more EU taxpayers money,?

  15. avatar
    Nicolette Ladoulis

    Now that all the south coast from UK Gibraltar (brexit) to Turkey/Syria is NATO because of Montenegro joining, good luck

  16. avatar
    Lidija Bojčić

    The Schengen agreement, which abolished border controls between its signatories, only works if the EU’s external borders are secure. What happened two summers ago was that some of those borders broke down under the weight of numbers and an aversion – in many ways admirable – on the part of guards to use force.

    As the scenes at Italy’s ports show, the EU frontier is still to an extent porous. The eastern land and sea routes may have been – partially – secured, but the Mediterranean is a harder proposition, and the traffickers flourish.

    At its height, the refugee crisis demonstrated some cardinal weaknesses of the European Union’s security. It exposed not only the inadequacy of its external borders, but the consequences of not having a uniform system for screening new arrivals or common criteria for determining who may stay. Someone rejected at one border might be accepted at another.

    Progress in formulating common standards and building a single EU border force has proved slow. Pooled sovereignty may be a key principle of the EU and pooled security a key aspect of Schengen, but the theory is a lot simpler than the practice.

    And as memories fade of those desperate scenes two years ago, it must be asked whether a new crisis – or the collapse of the arrangement with Turkey.

    Most likely, the whole question will be kept on hold until after the German election. Only then, probably, will the serious talking about EU border security commence, and probably a common coast guard. Until that, Europe shouldn’t stay border-free internally because it can’t guarantee its shared external border.

    31/08/2017 Judith Sunderland, Associate Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, has responded to this comment.

  17. avatar
    Ivan Burrows

    How on earth can 51 Nation States have the same coast guard ?? not thought that question through have you.

  18. avatar
    Paul X

    The immigration problem will not be solved by an EU coast guard, it matters not who is physically patrolling the med if they are all following the same liberal left agenda by people who fund their moral beliefs off the backs of European taxpayers

    What is required is a change of attitude and an organisation that actually “Guards the Coast” as opposed to acting as a welcoming committee…… at the moment it’s all a game played between people traffickers and the various agencies “rescuing” refugees, they know exactly who each other is and what is going to happen..refugees get dumped in international waters where they get picked up and ferried to Europe…..well it’s time someone had the balls to stand up, get tough and say we aren’t playing any more

  19. avatar

    Of course we need a common Coast Guardia and it should be working already.
    We can not still have a common border but 28 different Coast Guard. It has any sense.

  20. avatar
    Mario De Vita

    We could use technology to synergize coastal states’ guards

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