LONDON - Following the influx of millions of migrants and refugees in recent years, the European Union has launched a task force charged with securing the bloc’s external frontiers.  A ceremony at the Kapitan Andreevo Border Checkpoint on Bulgaria’s border with Turkey – the far eastern edge of the EU – marked the official launch of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency on Thursday.

Newly assigned EBCG border guards in bright blue uniforms demonstrated state-of-the-art surveillance equipment purchased with the increased budget.

The bloc’s commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, hailed the agency as an unprecedented achievement of the union.

"Today is a milestone in the history of European border management,” he said in prepared remarks. "From now onwards, the external EU border of one member state is the external border of all member states, both legally and operationally."

It "has now become a reality in less than nine months since the European Commission proposed it," Avramopoulos added. "The European citizens have demanded, and they rightly do so, a tangible European response – and today we deliver it collectively."

EU Commissioner of Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos
EU Commissioner of Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos poses for a picture with border police from Finland during the official launch of the European Union's Border and Coast Guard Agency at a border crossing on the Bulgarian-Turkish border in Kapitan Andreev

Beefed-up border efforts

Permanent staff at the revamped agency – previously known as Frontex – is expected to double in size, to 1,000, by the decade’s end, and a reserve pool of 1,500 border guards will be available for rapid deployment.

The agency will bolster security, testing vulnerabilities and trying to shore up any weaknesses at external borders "before a crisis hits," Agence France-Presse reported EBCG director Fabrice Leggeri as saying at the agency’s inauguration.

The EBCG also will help repatriate migrants.

European leaders hope a more secure external border will relieve the pressure on the internal passport-free Schengen zone, which allows EU citizens to travel freely across borders in 26 countries. Several states have re-imposed border controls in recent months to try to stem the flow of migrants.

Well-off countries criticized

Critics say Europe is shirking its responsibilities.

"Still, those top countries who earn the most, who have the highest GDP in the world, host … less than 10 percent of the world’s refugees," said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe. "That needs to shift, and no border guard is going to make that happen. That’s going to require political will and some durable solutions."

More than 300,000 migrants have arrived in Europe so far in 2016. Flows from Turkey have decreased since the EU struck a deal with Ankara in March to return all migrants who try to cross into Europe illegally.

Van Gulik said the EU’s leaders are outsourcing Europe’s asylum policy.

"They’re leaving it up to Turkey to host millions of refugees, they’re leaving it up to the very borders of Europe – so mostly Greece and also Italy now – to host refugees," she said. "And it means that people are stuck in the most horrendous conditions."

EU officials insist the border agency will respect fundamental human and refugee rights, but they say the bloc must regain control of its external frontiers to avert another crisis.