Maritime Illegal Migration Towards the European Union: The Command and Control Centre in the Canary Islands (Centro de Coordinación Regional de Canarias – CCRC) (ARI)

Maritime Illegal Migration Towards the European Union: The Command and Control Centre in the Canary Islands (Centro de Coordinación Regional de Canarias – CCRC) (ARI)

Theme: This ARI describes the organisation and coordination procedures put in place by the Canary Islands Regional Coordination Centre (Centro de Coordinación Regional de Canarias – CCRC) in the fight against illegal immigration by sea along the southern border of Spain and of the European Union.

Summary: The Canary Islands Regional Coordination Centre is doing work that is unique in Spain and in the EU to facilitate coordination among the various national, European and local agencies that deal with the ever-growing and increasingly organised movement of illegal immigrants by sea into European territory. The nature of the problem and the novelty of the solution make the CCRC experience an excellent laboratory for the various organisations that operate on the borders to test out coordination procedures. Six months after the start of operations, this ARI presents the results.


Control of the Maritime Border in West Africa
International illegal immigration across the southern border of Europe has a dynamic of its own, created by the actions and reactions of those who stimulate it and those who work to suppress it. Until 2005, the flows of illegal emigration from sub-Saharan Africa were directed by land toward the borders of Ceuta and Melilla. The closure of the camps near these Spanish cities after the human avalanches of 2005 shifted the migratory pressure to the west, towards the coasts of West Africa, and to the east, towards the Mediterranean, once again adding to the phenomenon of emigration by sea towards the southern border of the EU. As a result, after a few months of readjustment, in 2006 waves of cayucos (rudimentary boats) were moving towards the Canary Islands, overwhelming the resources of the police and ocean rescue and humanitarian aid agencies that had already had difficulty dealing with the earlier waves.

The Spanish Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the fight against irregular immigration, initially dealt with the situation from the Civil Guard headquarters in Tenerife and from the National Police headquarters in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. While in May 2006 technical and operational assistance was requested from the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (Frontex), the Ministry of Defence launched Operación Noble Centinela (Operation Noble Sentry) to monitor air and maritime space to support the operations carried out by the Interior Ministry. The need to coordinate national, European and local resources in a more integrated and stable fashion became clear during the following months. As a result, on 10 October, the Government issued Order 3108/2006, which put into effect a coordination mechanism agreed to by the Cabinet to deal with illegal immigration to the Canary Islands from a new centre in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

The Government has entrusted the management of the Canary Islands Regional Coordination Centre (CCRC) to the Civil Guard, which is carrying out an integrated, multi-faceted operation that involves many different actors. The different missions to be coordinated include controlling illegal immigration to the islands, conducting sea patrols in cooperation with the countries in the region, centralising and distributing the information and intelligence received, coordinating naval, police and customs operations, carrying out maritime search and rescue operations and channelling flows of illegal immigrants to reception centres. Among the many agencies to be coordinated are police corps attached to the Foreign Service, air-sea groups belonging to the Armed Forces and Frontex, the national police forces, customs services and a wide range of reception services for immigrants responsible to the Canary Islands Government’s Maritime Safety and Rescue Service and to the Red Cross, as well as other agencies that provide humanitarian aid.

The declared purpose of this coordination has been, to date, the fight against illegal immigration. The migratory pressure from the African mainland takes various routes that are used or abandoned in response to the greater or lesser difficulties encountered by the organised flows of migrants. Since the groups of emigrants camped out near the fences of Ceuta and Melilla were dispersed, the flows have shifted to the coast of Mauritania and from there southward as Spain has established bilateral agreements with Mauritania and Senegal. The main route to Spain and Europe follows the African coast but new routes further to the west have opened, in order to elude the coastal patrols. As a result, changes have also been made to the vessels used, increasing the capacity and self-sufficiency of the cayucos, but to date there has not been a qualitative jump to the use of ‘mother ships’. Despite the fact that some immigrants have arrived in a good state of health that does not accord with a voyage that takes an average of 10 or 15 days, there has not yet been clear evidence of the existence of shuttles. The presence of fishing boats in the area acting as ‘mother ships’ for the cayucos and moving with their crews from one fishing area to another add to the confusion. However, boats full of illegal immigrants have indeed attempted to land in EU ports. The future development of routes (that groups more powerful than the Africans are trying to consolidate) depends on the response given to cases such as the Marine II and the Happy Day, to mention two of the most recent ones, in February and March 2007.

The availability of personnel, operational resources and coordination procedures enables the CCRC to take a proactive approach to its management, preventing emigration at its starting points (operations Cabo Blanco in Mauritania and Gorée in Senegal) and planning for the reception of detected vessels. Police forces made up of Interior Ministry advisors and liaison officers take preventive action at the starting points, in coordination with local police forces and with mixed crews on the vessels that carry out the patrols. When interception is not possible, the CCRC relies on the detection and surveillance of vessels to coordinate any necessary search and rescue operations, as well as reception operations when detected vessels reach land.

The results of CCRC coordination are also affected by other factors, such as weather and the attitude of the countries along the coast. During the winter, for example, when light vessels cannot take to the ocean, the mafias fall back on alternatives routes to reduce the number of waiting emigrants. Itineraries are changed and sea voyages are replaced by movements by land or by air to more favourable group embarkation points. When atmospheric conditions are not a factor, what matters is the willingness of governments in the region to cooperate in the management of the migratory flows. The CCRC can do its utmost to maintain good operational relations with local immigration authorities and can ramp up its efforts to train Mauritanian personnel in the mixed crews on Civil Guard patrol boats, but it can do little to affect the political will to cooperate in the countries where illegal immigrants originate or in the countries of transit. This means it continues to be necessary for the target countries to support CCRC operations through diplomatic action. Today, cooperation is based on a framework of agreements negotiated bilaterally by Spain, on the basis of which multilateral cooperation frameworks can be constructed. Bilateral agreements to regulate migratory flows have been negotiated with Guinea Conakry, Gambia, Mali and Cape Verde, as well as operational memoranda of understanding with Senegal and Mauritania, enabling the coordination of coastal surveillance until the summer of 2007. These agreements are renewed on a case-by-case short-term basis by the countries of origin and transit, which always negotiate with an advantage over the countries of destination. Also, the list of countries that have to be negotiated with continues to grow as the starting points shift further south. This makes it necessary to maintain a structure to support the CCRC, with the participation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Spain’s National Intelligence Centre and the network of EU contacts (Sea Horse Project). In addition to relying on its own resources, the Government has mobilised its diplomatic resources to receive joint diplomatic, economic and operational support from the EU to control a maritime border that extends along the limits of Spain and Europe for 8,500 km.

Coordinating the Coordinators
Responsibility for the fight against irregular immigration and for the control of the borders corresponds to the Spanish Interior Ministry. The CCRC has the job of coordinating the agencies involved, each of which plans and carries out its own operations. Since it does not duplicate the operational structures of these organisations, the CCRC requires only a basic structure for its role as coordinator: a headquarters, a technical office, a communications centre and two operational divisions with liaison officers. Its coordination work essentially consists of command and control functions, the creation of operational procedures and the development of risk analysis.

For its operational command and control functions, the CCRC has a communications centre that is able to connect with all the other coordination centres and with the various units deployed. The CCRC operational division coordinates the operations directed by the Frontex coordination centre, and the Noble Centinela air-sea unit directed by the Defence General Staff’s operational command, with two component commands –one air and one sea–. It also coordinates the Army’s Alfa-India operation, the Sasemar search and rescue operations directed by the Maritime Search and Rescue centres, the reception operations conducted by the CECOES (Emergency and Security Coordination Centre) and the emergency shelters operated by local authorities. The operations centre operates 24 hours a day to monitor the situation and the CCRC coordinates daily air-sea operations in Africa together with the Frontex coordination centre and with African authorities, as well as doing the same on a weekly basis with the other actors involved. To facilitate its work, the CCRC has had to develop its internal and external coordination protocols from scratch, since no similar undertaking existed either at the national or international level.

The CCRC also has an Intelligence division that prepares daily, periodic and specific intelligence reports and shares them with the other coordination centres, while collating the intelligence and information that the other centres obtain in the course of their work. On the basis of this intelligence, risk analysis reports are prepared to facilitate the coordination unit’s adaptation to changing trends. The main resources allocated to the mission are six Civil Guard patrol boats in the Canary Islands zone and four others with mixed crews in Mauritania, one Civil Guard helicopter and one National Police helicopter, three Air Force reconnaissance planes and three Navy ships. In addition to these are Maritime Search and Rescue boats and Frontex resources (two boats and a reconnaissance plane).

The operations zone covers a triangle about 1,500 km long on the two sides from Gran Canarias to Cape Verde and to Senegal, with 580 km between these two countries, making an area of about 425,000 square kilometres, which doubles for search and rescue operations. Air reconnaissance shows thousands of cayucos on the coasts. These are boats that are generally used for fishing, but they can also be used to move illegal immigrants or provide supplies to the cayucos moving up the coast. The airplanes fly over the maritime and coastal space to identify movements. Each located boat is identified and, if it is transporting irregular immigrants, its position is reported to the CCRC, which processes and retransmits this information to all the coordination centres. When the naval units intercept a boat inside the territorial waters of Mauritania or Senegal, they inform the authorities, who decide whether to bring the boat to port or delegate this task to the intercepting units.

It is still very early to draw definite conclusions, but some lessons have already been learned. In general, the CCRC has met the coordination goals that were set for it and has re-established stable operational parameters, as long as migratory flows remain within the ordinary statistical ranges. The CCRC has developed flow patterns that help anticipate trends and make it possible to plan proactive operations, but it cannot control all the variables the have an impact on the volume of the eventual flows. When extraordinary flows appear, overwhelming its ordinary capacities, such as in the cases of the Marine II and the Happy Day, CCRC operational control can help the crisis management mechanism implemented by the Government but cannot replace or take over extraordinary management of this kind.

Statistics indicate a drop in the number of immigrants and boats reaching the Canary Islands since the peak in September 2006 (90 boats with 7,000 immigrants) to an average of about 10-20 boats and 500 immigrants during the early months of this year. Between August and December 2006, 57 cayucos with 3,887 immigrants were intercepted and returned to their points of origin, but it was not possible to prevent the arrival of 246 boats with 14,572 passengers. The establishment of the CCRC has coincided with the decline in the flows, but the statistical perspective is still too short to draw conclusions and it will be necessary to wait some time until figures are available with comparable weather conditions.

Border Control – The New Frontier of Security
The mission today focuses more on operations related to illegal immigration than on the comprehensive surveillance and control of the maritime border of the Canary Islands. This priority reflects the exponential increase in illegal immigration, but this is only one of many security issues taking shape on the external borders of the European Union. In addition to the human flows, there is a need to control the movement of goods and vessels to prevent the risks of criminal activity, terrorism, environmental damage, tax fraud, phytosanitary concerns and other border issues. This means that the need for coordination has only just begun.

These trans-national and multi-faceted challenges require a trans-national and European response that has not yet taken shape. As a result, both the responsibilities and the risks remain in the hands of each country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation has made a diplomatic effort in West Africa and, under the Action Plan for Africa 2006-08, new diplomatic delegations have been opened in Cape Verde and Mali, while those in Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, and Cameroon and Senegal have been strengthened. With these new capacities, the diplomatic component will be able to support police control and joint naval patrol operations in Senegal, Mauritania and Cape Verde. However, the flows are very changeable and it would seem important not to lower our guard and to keep in place a comprehensive mechanism to prevent and react to migratory crises. This mechanism should be under the centralised direction of the Government and its operations should be carried out in the field by specialised, multidisciplinary teams that are able to move quickly to wherever problems appear or could appear.

Political and diplomatic resources have also been mobilised to stimulate solidarity among the other EU members and to translate this into funds and agreements that help deal with a problem whose consequences affect everyone. This mobilisation has shown some results, such as the migratory issue being put on the European agenda, the participation of Frontex and the allocation of EU community funds for the operations under the Rapid Reaction Mechanism. However, at the same time it has also become clear that many member states are reluctant to participate in the field. The measures adopted by the Hampton Court Informal European Council, the Council’s conclusions in Brussels in December 2005 in its “Global approach to migration: priority actions focusing on Africa and the Mediterranean”, and the Action Plan approved at the Euro-Africa conference in Rabat in 2006 could alleviate migratory pressure in the medium and long term, but in the short and medium term the control of maritime borders will depend essentially on national capacities. For lack of a more definitive collective response, it will be necessary to seek other forms of bilateral or multilateral cooperation –leaving the EU aside– with those who truly want and are able to contribute to solving the problem.

European multilateral cooperation is still in its infancy and creates more hopes than results. Frontex, which began operating out of Warsaw in October 2005, has limited resources and experience to deal with the waves of migration beating against all the EU’s borders. Apart from personnel and administrative resources, contributions are required from member countries. But one thing is to fill a database with offers to contribute (19 airplanes, 24 helicopters and 107 boats) and another is for them to actually participate when requested. Of the 10 European countries that initially agreed to support Spain, only four –Italy, Luxembourg, Finland and Portugal– have in fact taken part in the mission (France withdrew after the first week). Despite these limitations, Frontex’s participation has been very positive for the CCRC because it channels the resources, funds and EU attention needed for the operations.

Experience also counts and Frontex has not come to the Canary Islands to provide experience, but rather to acquire it. It is the CCRC that coordinates the Frontex operations, not the other way around. In July, the agency deployed nine experts in an operation (Hera I) aimed at helping identify immigrants and in an air-sea operation on the African coast (Hera II), which was extended until December. Starting in mid-February, these were combined in a new operation (Hera III). Frontex has its own Coordination Centre that is coordinated within the CCRC under the direction of a Spanish command made up of European officials and African liaisons. It coordinates daily with the CCRC and with the international Operational Coordination Centre in Warsaw. In addition to the air-sea surveillance and interception operations on the African coasts, its members in the Canary Islands inspect the vessels that arrive and, with judicial authorisation and under the supervision of the National Police force, interview the immigrants in the reception centres in order to prepare information and intelligence reports which, together with those received by the CCRC, enable them to develop their operational capacity. The experience has been very positive for Frontex because Spain offers an operational platform unavailable from the EU or any other European country on the Mediterranean coast where immigrants arrive. This gives Frontex an opportunity to develop its operational procedures, which will be very useful for the end-of-year evaluation of the agency.

Since it relies essentially on its own resources, it may be time to consider renovating it. Coastal detection capacity (SIVE) is about to reach its limits in terms of geographic deployment (it still has to be completed in Gran Canaria and has not yet begun in Tenerife) and technical capacity. It is now necessary to begin designing a new-generation SIVE II that covers current limitations and the new needs that have arisen. Airborne resources have proved their operational value, but it is time to think about deploying new capacities that facilitate the automatic acquisition of information regardless of weather conditions, in order to avoid monitoring gaps. Increased resources would reduce the flight time required of crews, especially if unmanned satellites were to be used to generate information automatically at all times and under all conditions. The same can be said of naval resources, which also require increased interception capacity. Differences in the technical characteristics of patrol boats, search and rescue vessels and warships makes it necessary to act jointly or to have multi-use operational resources. Modernising resources can be considered a budgetary burden or else can be thought of as an opportunity to develop technological applications compatible with the smart borders (e-borders) that the EU will be requiring. It is also an opportunity for our industries to take advantage of an unbeatable laboratory to develop new research and development products. The greater the increase in the number and scope of sensors and platforms, the more proactive coordination will become. The more interception resources are put in place near the starting points, the easier it will be to return the cayucos before the danger increases.

Another area where reform is needed is in the differentiation between dissuasion and humanitarian aid in the operations. Search and rescue is something inherent to maritime borders, since the laws of the sea require action where there is evidence or the possibility of a shipwreck, and all resources present may take part in these operations. However, a problem arises when the same forces that are responsible for preventing the arrival of irregular immigrants have to regularly and simultaneously assure their arrival once they reach international waters. Air-sea resources detect the arrival of vessels but generally neither intercept them nor rescue them. Only search and rescue units do this work. However, police units both intercept and rescue, which undermines their image as a dissuasive force. To enhance this image, the search and rescue resources present in the deployments should be increased, while Civil Guard vessels should be relieved of these duties, except in cases of last resort. Notwithstanding international search and rescue obligations, a division of labour is advisable, particularly in light of the first aggression against a patrol boat on an interception mission. Throwing Molotov cocktails in an attempt to evade interception is a premeditated act and, although this was the first case in ten years of operations, the seriousness of the incident makes it necessary to reconsider the security of the crews and vessels.

The organisation, which has proved its validity, must also prepare to adapt to future needs. The rotation of Civil Guard commands working temporarily on coordination does facilitate valuable training for similar operations, but will become less effective as the operation continues and requires greater specialisation. Paradoxically, if the joint patrols are successful in coastal control operations, it will become necessary to deploy land or air patrols to prevent alternative routes being organised inland on the African coast, and cross-border controls will have to be established.

Conclusions: The achievements and challenges mentioned above confirm the importance of the CCRC’s coordination experience. Coordinating so many missions and actors would, in itself, make the CCRC mission especially relevant, but, beyond the complexity of management involved, what generates particular interest in the CCRC is that its mission represents a new generation of security: one that goes beyond what can be defined as purely internal or external, national or international, civilian or military. This is an experiment in security that is ahead of its time, one that is setting valuable precedents in the field of civilian-military coordination, in cooperation among security agencies and in interactions among national, European and local agencies.

The migratory issue poses a challenge to security that cannot be solved entirely by controlling borders, but if headway is not made in this area, the diplomatic and political efforts that are being made will be rendered pointless. Borders are no longer an issue that the Defence Ministry focuses on, but they are becoming important as a security issue. The lessons learned and those yet to be learned about maritime border control in the Canary Islands should help redesign the capacities, organisation and procedures for controlling our borders and this would be our greatest contribution to the control of the European Union’s external borders.

Félix Arteaga
Senior Analyst, Security and Defence, Elcano Royal Institute