Interview with Deputy Executive Director Uku Särekanno


Digitisation has long been the cornerstone of European border management. It comes, however, with both challenges and opportunities. To address concerns related to the integration of cutting-edge technologies in the EU’s external border controls and stay abreast of the latest developments in this domain, we spoke with Deputy Executive Director Uku Särekanno who oversees administration and information management at Frontex.

Q: Digital revolution in border management is just round the corner as the Entry/Exit System (EES) is set to become operational in autumn and six months later ETIAS will follow. How big of a change will that be for Europe?

There is definitely a big change coming, but I would not call it a revolution as this would imply that we do not yet have digital systems being used at the borders. This is not the case, as during the next two years we are rather going to witness an evolution of the current systems. The EES will bring in a centralised system where entries and exits to Europe will be automatically registered; while with ETIAS we will be conducting pre-travel checks on non-EU nationals who have so far enjoyed visa-free travel.

The introduction of these systems serves a dual purpose. One is to further improve the risk assessments, to ensure more personal assessment and mitigation of security risks. At the same time, it should also enable further automation of border management in Europe and facilitate travel flows to Europe. There are more than 500 million entries and exits to the European Union recorded each year, all involving checks at border crossing points, requiring significant human resources.

Q: Do you see any risks linked to the digitisation of border management?

There are always operational risks that accompany any kind of digitisation effort. Although the operational risks are mitigated with different technical solutions, there is also the worst-case scenario. We always need to have a plan B for situations where the systems are down.

Furthermore, some risks are related to the way we conduct our business operations. The manual stamping of passports is a rather traditional way of performing border checks, and the infrastructure at airports and other border crossing points has been built around this tradition. Now we aim to replace this with technology, which not only means a new approach to infrastructure development, but also changes to the way border guards perform their tasks and how they organise their work. This creates risks, as they can no longer operate the same way they are used to.

Q: Do you think the ongoing war in Ukraine will speed up or rather slow down this process? 

Any crisis situation is likely to also speed up digitisation processes, as you are struggling with resources and new risks. In the context of Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine, an upgraded identity management system at EU borders is of utmost importance. At the end of the day we have to ensure that we are able to detect at our borders not only suspected terrorists and war criminals, but also abducted and deported Ukrainian children. This war will remain with us for a long time to come and it has long-term implications for the European security, including border management. 

Q: Frontex will soon start testing a mobile application for the Entry/Exit System. How important is this new development? Can you explain the scope and the timeline of this project?

Initially, the challenge with the EES will come down to the fact that travellers arriving in Europe will have to have their biographic and biometric data registered in the system – border guards will have to register four of their fingerprints and their facial image. This process will take time, and every second really matters at border crossing points – nobody wants to be stuck in a lengthy queue after a long trip.

Frontex is currently developing a prototype of an app that will help speed up this process and allow travellers to share some of the information in advance. This is something we are working on to support the Member States, although there is no legal requirement for us to do so. The prototype of the app will be tested at Sweden’s Arlanda Airport, and our aim is to have it ready by the end of the summer, so it can then be gradually integrated into national systems starting from early autumn.

Once developed, the use of the app will be voluntary for Member States, who can decide if, when and where they may wish to use it.

Q: How do you see Frontex's future role in the digitalisation of EU's external borders and the implementation of modern technologies in border management?

I believe we have an important role to play here. On the one hand, Frontex is the only agency in Europe with the unique capacity to collect information about what happens at the external borders: we have systems in place, satellite imagery and the Eurosur framework. In this domain, we are already heading in the direction of automatic reporting and forecasting.

On the other hand, we serve as a centre of excellence and advise Member States on best practices when it comes to border management. Here eu-LISA is responsible for the technical development and operation of the large-scale IT systems, but Frontex is tasked with advising Member States on how to use these systems in practice. In other words, how to make the best use of the systems, adjust business processes and ensure similar practices on border controls. There are some very practical examples, such as the EES mobile application, a voluntary product that has been developed by Frontex with a view to support Members States in the implementation of EES.

What comes next is a very serious discussion on automation. We are looking into how, in the next five to ten years, we can have more automated border crossings and a more seamless travel experience. At the same time, we need to ensure that all risks are duly assessed and people entering Europe are properly checked.  To do this, we have to make wise choices and also provide sound advice to the Member States on which technological solutions we should use in Europe and what kind of risks we are willing to accept.

This is important because it is not only about managing irregular migration, but also regular border crossings and overstayers. The new systems will help us address these issues, but the technology will not replace the need for manpower. It will only enable us to manage the resources in a wiser manner and move them to where they are most needed.

Q: How does ETIAS change the role of Frontex in European border management?

Hosting the ETIAS Central Unit is a unique role entrusted to Frontex. To some extent, all other functions that Frontex performs – from border checks to return missions – could be backed up at the Member State level. The ETIAS Central Unit is unique in this sense: there is no similar backup, as no other entity will be processing those travel authorisation applications that the system has flagged.

Inevitably, with the launch of the new systems, not only of ETIAS but also the EES, more attention is now paid to managing regular traveller flows. Frontex will be playing a greater role in coordinating how these systems are implemented and in guiding the Member States in this process.