The European Union’s border protection agency Frontex began its official deployment in North Macedonia Thursday, extending its operations outside the bloc to a fifth country.
More than 100 border guards will assist national patrols along the country’s southern border with Greece, where illegal smuggling activity has picked up after pandemic restrictions were eased last year.
“As a key crossroads, it is often the scene where traffickers, smugglers and criminals try to escape the rule of law,” Frontex Executive Director Hans Leijtens said during a ceremony in the North Macedonian capital, Skopje.
“We must act united to ensure that our borders are not exploited by those who seek to profit from the plight of others.”
The agency already has operations in four other countries outside the EU, in Albania, Moldova, Montenegro and Serbia, with some 300 officers already active in the Western Balkan region.
North Macedonia, which has long sought to join the 27-nation bloc, formally began accession negotiations in July 2022.
Under an agreement reached last October, Frontex will deploy more than 100 officers, vehicles and equipment on North Macedonia's border with Greece.
Joint operations with national police may also take place along the borders of other neighboring countries that have partnered with the EU agency, including Serbia and Albania.
North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski said cooperation with Frontex would help the tiny Balkan country combat international criminal organizations.
“For us, Frontex means the protection of our borders, the protection of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our country,” he said.
Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski said that the Western Balkan migration route last year accounted for almost half of irregular entries into the European Union.
In an analysis of national registration data, the United Nations' International Organization for Migration said that migration through the Western Balkans had increased by nearly 60% in 2022 from the previous year and more than threefold over the previous four years.
“Following migration statistics for this year, the Western Balkans remains an attractive migration path to the European Union,” Spasovski said.
“That is why the joint operation we are launching today aims to control migration flows and to deal more effectively with cross-border crime, including migrant smuggling, human trafficking and terrorism as global challenges,” he said.