Frontex: What it is, and why it must be held accountable

, by Teresa Trallori

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Frontex: What it is, and why it must be held accountable
Refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea, heading from the Turkish coast to the North-eastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016. Credit: Creative Commons

After years of debate on its role and methods, it seems that a perfect storm is gearing up around Frontex, the “European border and coast guard agency”, as a series of accusations concerning human rights violations pile up against it.

What is Frontex?

Founded in 2004, Frontex is tasked with ensuring the security of the Schengen Area’s borders. While in its earliest days Frontex mainly had the role of coordinating the actions of each member state, since 2015, as the migrant crisis heightened, its tasks have gradually expanded, together with its budget. In the last few years, Frontex has conducted numerous operations in the Mediterranean Sea and the Balkans, working with both European and non-European nations to monitor and regulate the key routes of immigrations towards the EU.

Frontex has become, therefore, a crucial and impactful agency, tasked with the management of one of the most divisive and debated issues in Europe: immigration. For this reason, the fact that Frontex’s executive director, Patrice Leggeri, has been accused of failing to adhere to requirements related to human rights protection, is alarming.

The claims against the agency

The charges are being brought forward by the European Commission, which denounced Frontex’s failure to recruit any of the 40 officers who should be employed by the organisation for the monitoring and the respect of migrants’ fundamental rights. Moreover, the Commission also pointed out that in his presentation to the Members of the European Parliament, Leggeri was misleading in his explanation of the lack of human rights officers working for Frontex. These accusations are supported by many: Monique Patriat, the European Commission’s director-general for migration and the author of the letter which formally accuses Leggeri, seems to have the support of the liberal groups in the European Parliament, like The Greens and Renew Europe. Moreover, Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affair, has urged Frontex to clarify these claims as well as addressing the additional accusations which surfaced in the last weeks.

Indeed, as if this wasn’t enough, Frontex also faces scrutiny from the EU anti-fraud watchdog, OLAF. Among the claims that are being investigated, the most serious is undoubtedly that Frontex has participated in illegal “pushbacks” of migrants at European borders. This term refers to a dangerous and illegal practice by which migrants are driven back across a border, to the country they were coming from, without giving them the possibility to apply for asylum nor to receive medical assistance. According to the ECCHR, pushbacks violate multiple laws, among which is the prohibition of collective expulsions stipulated in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Recently, illegal practices of this sort have been reported in Bosnia, where Frontex is present along with Bosnian forces. In Bihac, at the border with Croatia, around 1500 migrants, mainly from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are living in desperate conditions after fire destroyed the Lipa refugee camp in late December, and are desperate to flee the freezing temperatures. Moreover, in October a joint investigation by numerous media outlets, such as Bellingcat and Der Spiegel, revealed that Frontex had been involved in pushback on the Greek-Turkish maritime border, apparently allowing, and in one case even actively enforcing, the pushback of boats. Such operations are particularly dangerous because the dinghies on which migrants try to reach the EU from Turkey are overcrowded and can easily capsize. For this reason, European border forces are obliged to always rescue migrants in these conditions: even to ignore them, let alone to participate in their pushback, would be an illegal act.

What is the impact of these accusations?

These claims, which Leggeri has firmly denied, seem to give credit to the long-standing critics of Frontex: indeed, over the last years, numerous journalists and activists have reported instances of irregular practices at European borders and have criticised Frontex for not intervening in dangerous situations in the Mediterranean, delegating rescue operations to the controversial Libyan coastal guard. More generally, Frontex has been accused of being the epitome of “Fortress Europe”, a term indicating the closure of the EU to migration flows and its will to go to extreme lengths to protect its borders.

And yet, until now these claims have been largely ignored. Instead, Frontex’s budget and role have been steadily expanding. In particular, since the end of 2019, the agency was put in charge of creating a European border patrol force consisting of 10.000 officers by 2027. This force would be the closest thing to a European army ever existed and was defined by Leggeri himself as a set of “civilian troops wearing a European uniform”. Such developments necessarily entailed an increase in budget, which went from €142 million in 2015 to €460 million in 2020, and should entail additional funding of at least €11 billion between 2021 and 2027, “to finance setting up the standing corps, the purchase of new equipment and the performance of additional tasks”.

A no-win situation?

It is clear then that Frontex is supposed to play a crucial role in the management and functioning of the EU, having been endorsed with such resources and responsibilities. Moreover, as a border patrol guard, Frontex is the first, and most important, point of contact between migrants and the European Union, becoming the representative of the EU approach to asylum-seeking and refugee protection. Considering the impact that this first encounter can have on the lives of migrants, as well as the debates and tensions that the issue of immigration has created among member countries, the agency’s practices should be as transparent as possible and, obviously, strictly adhere to international law.

Therefore, the recent accusations that Frontex is facing represent at best a failure of the agency regarding the transparency of its operations, and at worst, if the claims proved true, a complete failure of the European Union itself, which would appear unable to prevent the abuse of power against migrants by one of its own agencies. The only way to resolve this no-win situation and to amend to past mistakes would be for EU institutions, such as the Parliament, the Commission, and the anti-fraud watchdog, to collectively take on the investigation in order to completely clarify these claims and hold Frontex accountable to the full extent of the law.

The agency’s expansion cannot proceed while these accusations persist and, if they were substantiated, Frontex and the bodies working with it should be subjected to thorough reforms and scrutiny, to clarify the mechanisms and interests behind such abuses. Not doing so would be a grave injustice to all those affected.


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