EU: Mediterranean joint patrols fail to stop migrants

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"A pioneering joint maritime surveillance scheme to guard Europe's southern seaboard against illegal immigration foundered on the lack of a common language and failed to stop a single person.

When Spain's Interior Minister, Angel Acebes, launched Operation Ulysses in January, he said it would intercept boatloads of clandestine immigrants and send them home. Mr Acebes hailed the scheme as the prototype for a future European border police force.

Boats from five EU member states patrolled the Mediterranean from Algeciras to Palermo in Sicily, between 28 January and 8 February without spotting one illegal boat. But, over that period, some 300 people completed the hazardous crossing from North Africa to Andalusia.

Problems began when crews of the ships from Britain, France, Portugal, Italy and Spain realised that they had no common language. They were told to exchange personnel so they could talk to each other, only to find that the ships' communications systems were incompatible, a report on the operation says.

The British and the Portuguese are said to have pulled out early, while the Italians complained that bad weather stopped them leaving port. The French said the patrol ships were too small for the open seas.

The operation overspent its 1.2 million euro (£830,000) budget, shared by Spain and the EU. Spain wants Brussels to increase its contribution from 60 per cent to 80 per cent for phase two, starting in April, which will extend surveillance to Atlantic waters between the Western Sahara and the Canary Islands.Spain's Civil Guardrecommends using aircraft to monitor large expanses of sea. A British official said yesterday: "It was a learning experience. The first time you mount something like this with five countries there is bound to be room for improvement. We'll learn from this for the next phase, to which we are committed."

The Independent newspaper, 11 March 2003

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