Meet our officers: From the Office to the Fieldwork


When asked about the borders, an average person will talk about check points and vast areas between the countries dotted here and there with inter-country multilingual signposting. In this first association, border guards are seen as patrols of the separation lines, frontline watchers of where one country begins and the other ends. In reality, only a percentage of border guards are actively involved in border control. Many search vehicles, some look out for fraudulent documents, others handle dogs to detect weapons or drugs. But there is also a less known profile called ‘a return specialist’ – these border guards are keepers of the most amazing human stories, many of which can never be told. 

Before we travel to Larnaca in Cyprus, where David is currently deployed, we must make a first stop in Warsaw, at Frontex’s headquarters. David, a young graduate from Slovakia, has just started his internship at the Frontex Situation Centre. Soon after, he will move to ECRET, a European Centre for Return Divisions. He does not know it yet, but this twist in his career will determine everything that will follow: 

My professional career with returns took off in the Returns Division, where I spent over 3 years in various positions and teams. I then realised that a change of pace and place would be welcome and felt ready to work in field operations. 

The need for a change was synchronised perfectly with Frontex’s first announcement of the recruitment campaign for standing corps officers, the EU’s first uniformed coast and border guards’ service. David applied and succeeded in a multi-level recruitment that covered medical, physical, language, and psychological exams. According to David, the biggest challenge for most people was the physical part. Nevertheless, any reasonably fit person could be ready within a month if they dedicated enough time to it

Back to the present 

Today, David works as a return specialist, with an IT system user in his sub-profile. His successful exams to become an EU border guard at a basic level, where no previous experience is required, put him on a list for all potential profiles – from document expert to first- and second-line checks: All candidates can indicate their preference for a profile, but there is never a certainty about the final assignment. I suppose that my previous experience in the Returns Division was a strong indicator for my path. 

In the task of the Returns Division, we can read that the return specialists ‘support EU countries in the organisation and coordination of return operations’ and ‘provide assistance to EU countries in relation to voluntary returns, prioritising assistance to the countries experiencing challenges with regard to their return systems’. What does it mean in practice? 

Given the size of Cyprus and the great migratory pressures on the island, the local authorities would have a hard time to deal with all return procedures on their own. This is where Frontex comes in. Here in Larnaca, I work with 5 return escorts and 2 more return specialists, all EU border guards.  The return counsellors talk to the migrants, help them understand the return procedure and support them in their applications for voluntary returns. 

The counsellors also talk to migrants to explain their obligation to leave the territory of Cyprus after the final and unappealable return decision has been issued. Their role is to promote the possibilities for voluntary departure and reintegration, and to support the migrants in the following return procedure. 

Once the paperwork is done, David takes care of all the return formalities: a valid travel document, COVID vaccinations or tests (if required), and a flight ticket. This requires coordination with the return escorts, i.e., officers who help the migrants with the actual check-in at the airport, as well as with the local authorities who need to keep track of all returns. 

Surprisingly, one of the most time-consuming tasks is actually getting in touch with the migrants and arranging a face-to-face meeting, where I can explain the details of their return trip. Whoever is considering the role of a return specialist must have enough patience – picking up the phone to make an appointment is rarely enough. 

That’s the technical picture of the job that also implies a high level of confidentiality and discipline when the documents are handled. But, contrary to this ‘dry’ job description, David’s and every other return specialist’s daily job is filled with human stories and situations for which there is no training, only on-the-job experience. People return to their countries because they have no longer the legal right to stay. But there are also the ones who can’t cope anymore with the hardships of living in a foreign country. They return because their closest relatives have passed away or are terminally ill. They return because they were deceived by dishonest people and left with nothing else, but a suitcase filled with hopes that they had brought to Cyprus to start a new life. When they share their stories with return specialists, documents and procedures are sometimes the easiest part of the job. The greatest challenge is the human element. In this kind of a job, showing a bit of empathy towards the migrant can take you a long way, and make things much easier. However, it is still a job in law enforcement, and the migrants must understand that there are laws that must be followed, and they apply to everyone – regardless of their situation. Very often migrants only speak their mother tongue, which can further complicate things, but where there’s a will, there is a way

A quick jump into the future 

David is now in his first year of deployment, which started after a year-long training. He is satisfied with his job. He still has several months to work in Larnaca and will then expect a new deployment decision, which is very likely to take him to a different location. He does not know where. Right after being recruited, he went through an extensive training that covered all sorts of aspects of border guarding: document examination, border surveillance, fundamental rights monitoring, first- and second-line checks, but also defence and firearms training. He will most likely continue his job as a return specialist, but the decision will still come with uncertainty about the next destination. 

This is how the international career in border guarding implies personal consequences as well. As David told us, I recommend this career to everyone but with a little disclaimer. Candidates should be aware of the deployment reality. They may be separated from their families, do the night shifts in very cold environments far away from home, and be redeployed at any time to any place. This may be an exciting challenge for many, but for others, a rather difficult obstacle. 

Frontex’s standing corps is a young formation and the challenge of striking the right balance between remote deployments and a personal life can be sometimes overwhelming. Who knows, maybe after years of working in the field, one day, a return specialist will decide to book his own return ticket? 

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