WARSAW, Poland – The number of North African migrants trying to reach Europe has fallen significantly in the past few days because of choppy seas and stronger law enforcement in Tunisia, the head of the European Union's border control agency said Friday.
Frontex director Ilkka Laitinen also told The Associated Press in an interview that Tunisians who arrived illegally on the Italian island of Lampedusa in recent weeks are being slowly returned home. He said his Warsaw-based agency has also seen a reverse flow, with North Africans in Europe returning home — possibly to play a role in the uprisings or new political systems being established there.
"We have seen there is a reverse movement of the citizens and nationals of these Northern African countries who are residing in EU going back to their countries when something is really happening there," he said. "It's happening — not on a massive scale — but it's happening."
Laitinen said his agency will continue to work proactively with EU members to prevent the flow of illegal migrants into Europe.
Even as the EU increases its activities on Lampedusa and other entry points to Europe on the Mediterranean Sea, it has also toughened checks at the Greek-Turkish border, a popular entry point for North Africans, he said. There are many air connections from Algiers, Algeria, to Istanbul, and illegal migrants have often relied on those flights to enter Turkey, which does not require an entry visa, continuing their route overland into Greece.
The high point of recent migration attempts to Europe occurred a week and a half ago when 4,000 Tunisians arrived over a three-day period in Lampedusa, Sicily, or elsewhere. By contrast, 238 migrants arrived this week Tuesday and Wednesday, but in the days before and after border and coast guards made no interceptions, Laitinen said.
"The situation now seems to be calming down. It's basically because of the re-established capacity of the Tunisian law enforcement and also because of the weather conditions," he said.
The same rough seas that that have slowed down the migrant flow have also trapped thousands of Chinese, Americans and other foreigners hoping to flee the chaos in Libya.
Frontex is working to screen and debrief the would-be migrants as part of an operation dubbed Hermes. It was originally due to begin in June, but started instead Sunday at Rome's request as it struggled to deal with what Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni called a "biblical exodus."
The turbulence in Northern Africa creates a risk that people linked to terrorist groups or organized crime networks could join the mass of migrants attempting to reach Europe, and EU members, Frontex and Europol are all working to prevent this, Laitinen said.
"This could be the opportunity for criminals to come to carry out their business," he said. However, he refused to say if any suspects had been detected. He said any such revelations would only serve to cause panic and would compromise intelligence operations.