Current Border Security-Related Activities in South East Europe

By Paul Martin, Senior Police Adviser (Transnational Threats), Public Safety and Community Outreach Department
OSCE – Mission to Skopje

With its 57 participating States spanning continental Europe, Central Asia and North America, as well as co-operating with Mediterranean and Asian partners, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization. The OSCE has a comprehensive and collaborative approach to security, allowing it to deal with a wide range of security issues, including countering organized crime and terrorism, supporting border security, and advocating for a human rights approach to law enforcement. Within its area of operation, the OSCE also acts as an instrument for early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation.

The Organization implements a wide array of activities, mostly through direct engagement in the field. The OSCE’s field operations (FOs) are a key element of the OSCE; the FOs provide an effective avenue for working closely with host countries to support reform processes that align their legislation and practice with OSCE values and commitments. In order to reach those goals, FOs implement a wide variety of projects across three dimensions of security: politico-military (1st), economic and environmental (2nd), and human (3rd). Field operations receive funding for their programmatic activities through the OSCE’s unified budget as well as extra-budgetary contributions from one or more OSCE participating States.

The OSCE Mission to Skopje was founded 30 years ago. One of the areas in which the Mission supports North Macedonia is in strengthening the national authorities’ capacities to effectively prevent and investigate transnational threats, including by enhancing border security and management. One of the Mission’s key extra-budgetary projects is on reducing the risk of the illicit proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW).

The national authorities sought OSCE assistance after a group of armed men stole a significant quantity of semi-automatic small arms from remote border police stations in 2015. In response, the Mission to Skopje created a dedicated extra-budgetary project with the generous support of the United States, Germany, Belgium, Norway, France and the European Union to improve border functions with a focus on information technology security, as well as significantly improving physical security and stockpile management.

The largest part of this project was the construction of 15 remote sites to improve the physical security and stockpile management of the border police’s SALW and accompanying ammunition. All construction work was completed by 2021.

Under the project, the Mission also supported the creation of a standard operating procedure (SOP) related to the safe storage and management of armaments in the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MoIA), a training manual and a draft curriculum on the safe storage and handling of weapons. These materials were used to create a training module for the basic training of police cadets, as well to develop an e-learning refresher course for all police officers, which was made available on the MoIA intranet. By the end of the project in 2021, MoIA instructors who had been trained by the Mission had delivered 32 training courses on the safe storage and handling of weapons to 968 personnel. In addition, the SOP reached 576 police officers through the e-learning platform.

Based on the success of this first project, the national authorities requested that the Mission expand its engagement in SALW control, and the Mission created a second project in response. This project will run from March 2020 to December 2025. It has a budget of €8,059,000 and is currently receiving generous financial support from the United States, Germany, Belgium, France, Norway, and the European Union. The project will focus on helping North Macedonia: enhance its SALW control measures; increase the analytical, and operational capacities of the National SALW Commission; improve the capacities of the police’s K9 unit in detecting SALW, ammunition and explosives; enhance the operational and SALW detection capacities of the Police and Customs Cooperation Centers (PCCCs); and strengthen the legislative and practical framework for effective deactivation of SALW pursuant to OSCE Best Practice Guidelines.

Through this second SALW project, the Mission has thus far supported the development of detailed and tailored designs for SALW-related infrastructure: information and communication technology upgrades at the four existing PCCCs and upgrades of infrastructure at nine locations used by the K9 units. These designs now act as an easy-to-use template for the MoIA. The Mission also donated 14 specialized K9 vehicles for police dog deployment to the MoIA. These vehicles have enhanced the effective deployment and mobility of the K9 units, cutting response times and, for the first time, giving the units the capability of responding to multiple incidents simultaneously. The Mission has also helped to develop an orientation manual and a communications strategy to enhance the operational and analytical capabilities of the National SALW Commission.

The Mission’s future activities within this second SALW project will focus on establishing a Secure Information Exchange Network Application (SIENA) for the country’s PCCCs and providing training courses on the application. Additionally, the Mission will work on infrastructure upgrades of nine K9 unit facilities, as well as enhancing the processes of deactivation and destruction of firearms.

The foundation of the Mission’s work on border security in North Macedonia is the Mission’s Transnational Threats Team. Led by the senior adviser in charge of the projects, the team is composed of experienced advisers with strong law-enforcement backgrounds and expert local staff. The team supports the host country authorities in integrating the principles and processes associated with integrated border management (IBM), with a specific focus on enhancing anti-corruption capacities, as well as monitoring and reporting on migration, asylum and general security-related issues on the host country’s borders.

The team’s work on IBM has entailed a wide range of activities, including simulation exercises between border police, customs authorities and local police; “hot pursuit” cross-border exercises; a leadership skills training programme for mid-level border police and customs managers; and training courses on counter-corruption investigation skills for the MoIA internal control department. The team has also worked closely with the national authorities to organized regional conferences and workshops aimed at enhancing regional co-operation as well as monitoring irregular migration trends.

North Macedonia’s challenges in border security and management are common to most Western Balkan participating States. They include uncontrolled irregular migration; trafficking of human beings, drugs, and cultural artefacts; smuggling of revenue goods such as cigarettes; and corruption.

On 26 October 2022, the European Union and North Macedonia signed an agreement on operational co-operation in border management with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). While the extent of support and presence of Frontex in North Macedonia is still to be agreed, there is broad consensus that its presence might include the deployment of Frontex’s standing corps to the southern green borders with Greece.

Most irregular migrants entering North Macedonia intend to settle in the EU or beyond for economic reasons, with the most frequent nationalities intercepted being Syrians, Afghans and Pakistanis.

The security threats associated with the smuggling and trafficking of human beings in mixed migration flows to security are made increasingly complex by the use of the internet and social communications platforms to identify inland routes away from police patrols, taxi drivers that provide assistance in transport, and well-developed safe houses. This is further complicated by North Macedonia’s own technical challenges, which include a lack of institutionalized foreign language resources and effective watch-lists access.

Technical modernization is also a challenge for the border agencies of North Macedonia. The border police are often still patrolling the green borders with old vehicles, despite assistance from foreign partners, including the OSCE. The national police, also known as the Public Safety Bureau, also has other operational areas requiring more immediate support and therefore tends to direct donated resources to these areas first.

Despite the challenges, North Macedonia is making progress on border management, including through the Frontex agreement and the expanded co-operation with Greece. The OSCE Mission to Skopje will continue its long-standing support to North Macedonia on its strategic reform agenda, and its assistance to the MoIA and other key partners in the country to further enhance border security and management capacities.