By Eline Wærp
PhD student, Malmö University
The European Border and Coast Guard agency, commonly known as Frontex (from French: frontières extérieures), has been subject to renewed media attention this last year with the pushback allegations concerning the agency’s operation in the Aegean Sea (Waters, Freudenthal and Williams 2020). Established in 2004 to manage the operational cooperation between member states at the external borders, the agency has been criticized by scholars and civil society actors from its very first operations, for facilitating the mistreatment of refugees and migrants at the hands of member states in detention centers (HRW 2011) and participating in or turning a blind eye to fundamental rights violations conducted in member states where it has joint operations (including the right to apply for asylum and principle of non-refoulement, among others) (BVMN 2020, Waters et al. 2020, HRW 2021).
After years of lobbying by the agency’s own Consultative Forum and Fundamental Rights Officer, both who were included in the 2011 regulation to strengthen competences on fundamental rights within the agency, the Executive Director made the decision in January this year to cease operations in Hungary, only after the European Court of Justice ruled Hungary’s asylum law to not be compliant with the Common European Asylum System (Barigazzi 2021). This reluctance by the Executive Director to end operations in member states where fundamental rights abuses are documented to be taking place and his rejection and rather passive response to the pushback allegations towards the agency has led to a petition for him to resign (We Move Europe 2020), which is backed by several political groups in the European Parliament (Wallis 2020), and a damning report by the Civil Liberties (LIBE) committee’s newly founded Frontex Scrutiny Group (European Parliament 2021), which questions the competences of the Executive Director to run one of the largest EU agencies in terms of funding but soon also staff.
The LIBE committee’s Frontex Scrutiny Working Group has just completed a four-month long investigation of the agency’s participation in the alleged pushbacks in the Aegean Sea, but similarly to the agency’s own Management Board working group failed to find any conclusive evidence (European Parliament 2021). The rapporteur of the report, however, Tineke Strik (Greens) has warned that this should not be interpreted to mean that no pushbacks have taken place in the Aegean Sea, and various media and NGO sources conclude that these take place on an almost everyday basis both off and on the Greek islands (Aegean Boat Report 2020, BVMN 2020).
In response, the Executive Director, the newly appointed Fundamental Rights Officer, Management Board members, and the Swedish coast guards I have talked to all emphasize rather that the presence of the agency might actually foster compliance with fundamental rights, as border guards from participating member states serve as a watchful eye on the ground of the host state. Indeed, the Swedish coast guards even talked of a form of ‘Nordic exceptionalism’ when it comes to respecting fundamental rights, how their SAR SOPs were so good that they became implemented by Frontex, and that they were worried that the new standing corps members would be from mostly Southern, Eastern or Central European countries (because of the pay grade), implying that this would bring the standard of Integrated European Border Management down.
These comments, the debate surrounding Frontex, its apparent ‘crisis of growth’, and the lack of clarity regarding the agency’s responsibilities and accountability give rise to the question about the future of the agency. Having the EU’s first uniformed service in the form a standing corps of soon 10,000 border guards with executive powers, along with the agency’s ability to intervene in non-neighboring EU countries and its larger role in returns, it is clear that greater transparency need to follow these increased powers. A lot of the recent criticism revolves around the leadership style of the current Executive Director, however, which was also expressed by several of the Frontex officials I talked to. This might suggest that things could be different with a different Executive Director that was more attuned to fundamental rights protections.
Whereas Frontex so far has often been framed as the ‘black sheep’ by scholars and civil society actors, perhaps the picture is not so black and white (for instance think of member states’ role here, sitting on the Management Board of the agency and in the Council) and that the agency could actually help ensure a more fundamental rights compliant and protection-sensitive EU(ropean) border management with high common standards across the board? Although the agency has largely been perceived to be a ‘part of the problem’ of an increasingly securitized and deadly EU(ropean) border regime, it could very well be a part of the solution to dismantling this very regime in the future if fundamental rights concerns are taken seriously by not just the Executive Director but the Management Board, the EU and member states more generally.
Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but scapegoating the agency just because it is low-hanging fruit might do little to change this fact. This is not to say that Frontex should not be held accountable for its actions, but just to point out the perhaps disproportionate amount of focus on the agency’s actions as opposed to member states’, who ultimately are the ones sitting on the Management Board and seconding border guards who take part in the operations (for example where is the discussion of their role in these pushback allegations?).
Under the right leadership and with sufficient political will, perhaps we could start imagine a future where Frontex is not the alleged perpetrator of fundamental rights violations but rather the upholder of such through a more protection-sensitive, harmonized EU(ropean) border management (for example aided by the vulnerability assessments). This would need to be accompanied by a more humanitarian, fair and functioning EU-wide asylum and migration management system with safe and legal routes for refugees and migrants, since the absence of such is partly what has given rise to the militarized and externalized border we see today (which Frontex is often blamed for).
Lastly, as the Frontex officials I talked to emphasized, we need to keep in mind that border management is only one part of the chain, and it cannot solve the problems of poor asylum and migration management, which is perhaps the real crisis or at least the root cause of the multiple ‘crises’ and deaths that we have seen at the external borders of the EU the last two decades.
Aegean Boat Report (2020). ‘Annual Report 2020’. Accessible from: https://aegeanboatreport.com/annual-reports/ [Accessed 21/8/2021].
Barigazzi, Jacopo (2021). ‘EU border agency suspends operations in Hungary’. Politico, January 27. Accessible from: https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-border-agency-frontex-suspends-operations-in-hungary-migration/ [Accessed 21/8/2021].
Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) (2020). ‘The Black Book of Pushbacks’. Volume 1, December 2020. Barker, H. and M. Zajovic (eds.). Commissioned by GUE/NGL. Brussels: European Parliamentary Group.
European Parliament (2021). ‘Report on the Fact-Finding Investigation on Frontex Concerning Alleged Fundamental Rights Violations’. LIBE committee, July 14. Rapporteur Tineke Strik (Greens). Accessible from: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/cmsdata/238156/14072021%20Final%20Report%20FSWG_en.pdf [Accessed 21/8/2021].
Human Rights Watch (HRW) (2011). ‘The EU’s Dirty Hands. Frontex Involvement in Ill-Treatment of Migrant Detainees in Greece’. September. Accessible from: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/greece0911webwcover_0.pdf [Accessed 21/8/2021].
Human Rights Watch (2021). ‘Frontex Failing to Protect People at EU Borders’. News, June 23. Accessible from: https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/06/23/frontex-failing-protect-people-eu-borders [Accessed 21/8/2021].
Wallis, Emma (2020). ‘Frontex: MEPs Call for EU Border Agency Director to Resign over Allegations of Migrant Pushbacks’. InfoMigrants, December 2. Accessible from: https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/28868/frontex-meps-call-for-eu-border-agency-director-to-resign-over-allegations-of-migrant-pushbacks [Accessed 21/8/2021].
Waters, N., Freudenthal, E., and Williams, L. (2020). ‘Frontex at Fault: European Border Force Complicit in ‘Illegal’ Pushbacks’. Bellingcat, October 23. Accessible from: https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2020/10/23/frontex-at-fault-european-border-force-complicit-in-illegal-pushbacks/ [Accessed 21/8/2021].
We Move Europe (2020). ‘EU Border Chief, Resign after Human Rights Abuses’. Petition. Accessible from: https://act.wemove.eu/campaigns/leggeri-resign-now [Accessed 21/8/21].