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How many images do you have in your mind of immigrants arriving on a fishing boat at the port of Lampedusa or Fuerteventura? Of a boat capsized off Tenerife being helped by the Libyan or Maltese coast guard? Of Iraqi and Afghan asylum-seekers queuing at the City Hall of Calais? Or of those inside a holding centre in Sicily or Patras? You've seen quite few of these pictures recently? That's likely to be due to the simple fact that summer time is migration time on the Mediterranean Sea, the weather conditions being fairly favourable for setting off on trips that promise to lead either to a prosperous future or certain death.

This FAQ-style article aims to get you informed about the EU's border issues. After covering some basic points, we'll highlight some central elements of the EU's role in controlling access to its territory. On the practical side, it's the EU agency Frontex which acts as the executive arm of its boss, the European Commission.

Photo: Stylianos Giamarelos / www.youthphotos.eu
Refugees from Africa enter Europe at Greek beaches.

Some facts on the ground

Sea patrols and tragedies often seem to be the only visible aspect of border security. In fact, most migration does not go over the sea. It is almost equal in amount with irregular migration over land, the main routes running across the border between Turkey and Greece and Albania. And apart from that, most migration is not directed towards European borders anyway. According to UNHCR, the UN's migration research branch, around 80 percent of all African refugees remain on the continent, mostly not even setting out to leave Africa. Developing countries in general play host to four fifths of the world's refugees. But Europe is the leader when it comes to asylum claims: 333 000 asylum claims registered were during 2009, says UNHCR. The number of positive decisions issued to asylum-seekers went up in 2008 across all major regions - with the exception of Europe.

What is border security?

Border security refers to countermeasures to all cross border security threats - cyberspace and military threats excluded. Measures taken against the smuggling of goods, whether mundane, like cigarettes, or illegal and very dangerous objects, such as counterfeited chemicals, drugs or weapons, as well as human trafficking, are covered by the term.

Why do we need it?

The need for a European policy of border security, according to the European Commission and European heads of government, is justified as follows: since national border controls between most European countries no longer exist, we need to prevent illicit cross-border activities on the outermost EU borders, while facilitating the legitimate movement of goods and persons within the EU.

What role does the EU play in the EU-countries' border protection?

The European Union plays an increasingly important role in border protection. It first defines a policy within a general framework. Secondly, it fixes precise norms, which take the form of Regulations, such as the Schengen Borders Code, for example. At the European Commission, it has three levels of activity: a political level, a regulatory level and the level of technical cooperation. The most famous among these is the agency Frontex. It is worth keeping in mind that the actual controls, daily checks and patrolling are a matter for individual nations. The controls must be according to a principle called mutual recognition, which stipulates that European countries must trust and rely on each other's controls at the entry point.

Photo: Lynn Osbahr / www.youthphotos.eu
Within the Schengen area border stones have replaced fences.
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