Frontex: the controversial European Union agency on the brink of closure

By Fulya Kocukoglu,
Europe Analyst

On 9 June, 80 human rights organisations, activists and rescue teams across the world addressed an open letter[1] to the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament, calling on them to defund and abolish Frontex, the European border and coast guard agency.

The criticisms against Frontex are not new. Many reports published by human rights organisations reflected the human tragedies in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. In breach of European Union and international law, boats of migrants are pushed back, prevented from landing, and even left at the sea if their dirigible boats burst. Especially after the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen an increase in human rights violations on the EU’s borders. Greek authorities have been conducting systematic push-backs at land and sea, mostly on the border between Greece and Turkey.

Reports show that the violence has transformed into a “de facto border policy”[2] with the systematic torture, ill-treatment and illegal pushbacks of migrants to Turkey. Frontex and Greek authorities have been noted to arrest and detain people 700km away from EU borders before returning them to Turkey.[3] Recently, the Greek government designated Turkey as a “safe third country” so that more asylum seekers could be sent back. Moreover, they installed new digital barriers; a steel wall, sound cannons and drones at the border with Turkey to stop migrants from entering the EU illegally.

In 2019, a rescue ship captain was arrested for breaking an Italian naval blockade that was preventing her from docking her vessel in Lampedusa. Human rights groups in Croatia revealed the abuse on Croatia’s border with Bosnia-Herzegovina: sexual abuse, violence, humiliation and beating. According to The Guardian’s analysis conducted through reports released by UN agencies, at least 40,000 asylum seekers were met with illegal pushbacks by EU member states with the assistance of Frontex. The death of 2,000 asylum seekers was linked to these brutal methods.[4]

The expansion of Frontex

Established to protect EU border security, Frontex was established in 2005 with 43 employees and a €6 million budget. Its capacity was enhanced in 2020 with 700 employees and a budget of €420 million. Expanding its operational power and jurisdiction, Frontex took part in the agreements between the EU and third countries to prevent irregular migration. With new regulations, the total budget for the 2021-2027 period has increased by €5.6 billion to augment Frontex’s operational response with new armed border guards. Thus, its budget has risen by more than 7,500% since 2005, with additional equipment such as ships, helicopters and drones.[5]  The call for abolition coincides with these expansion plans.

While its area of authority and influence is rapidly increasing, the illegal pushback operations and human rights violations discredit the EU, which sees itself as a defender of liberal values, the rule of law and human rights. Despite becoming the frontline in protecting the EU’s borders and its controversial activities, Frontex nevertheless as a legal obligation to protect human rights. Is abolition, rather than accountability of individuals, the solution?

Ensuring accountability

Frontex’s practices in Greece explicitly violate the principle of non-refoulement, the prohibition of torture, inhumane and degrading treatment and other related articles under international and EU law. However, there have been no developments in terms of accountability. Since the foundation of Frontex 15 years ago, Frontex’s human rights compliance has never been assessed by a court. 

Even if there is evidence of international law breaches that leads to the abolition of Frontex, it would be hard to hold it accountable for violations. Frontex operations involve multiple actors, such as local and national authorities, third countries, various EU institutions and private contractors. Assigning responsibility therefore becomes a substantially difficult task.

The second issue revolves around jurisdictional accountability, namely ambiguity about which court has the authority to consider Frontex violations. National courts of EU Member States cannot prosecute Frontex. However, it might fall under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), to which member states have delegated powers. Likewise, the European Court of Human Rights cannot try Frontex as the EU itself is not a party to the court. In this context, if individuals go before the ECJ for the violation of their rights, they encounter two difficulties: As mentioned above, the question of who is responsible due to the involvement of different actors in the operations, and secondly, the very limited decision-making capabilities of the ECJ regarding fundamental rights.[6]

Even if a way was found to hold Frontex accountable, the EU’s migration policies are unlikely to assist in saving migrants. The EU distributes financial aid to keep refugees out of its borders and turns a blind eye to migration-related rights violations. The EU should first launch a common roadmap, encompassing all EU member states and third countries, to address the migration issue. For this reason, the open letter addressed by human rights organisations is calling not only for the abolition of Frontex but also for other efforts such as the regularisation of migrants, stopping deportations, ending detentions, stopping the militarisation of borders, stopping the surveillance of people on the move, stopping the EU’s role in forcing people to migrate, and ending the current EU border regime.

References


[1] ‘Abolish Frontex’, 9 June 2021, https://abolishfrontex.org/blog/2021/06/09/abolish-frontex-open-letter/ (accessed 15 June 2021)

[2] Amnesty International, ‘Greece: Pushbacks and violence against refugees and migrants are de facto border policy’, 23 June 2021,https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/06/greece-pushbacks-and-violence-against-refugees-and-migrants-are-de-facto-border-policy/ (accessed 25 June 2021)

[3] ‘Amnesty accuses Greece of ‘systematic’ policy of migrant pushbacks’, Euronews, 23 June 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/06/23/amnesty-accuses-greece-of-systematic-policy-of-migrant-pushbacks (accessed 25 June 2021)

[4] Tondo, Lorenzo, ‘Revealed: 2,000 refugee deaths linked to illegal EU pushbacks’, 5 May 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/may/05/revealed-2000-refugee-deaths-linked-to-eu-pushbacks (accessed 25 June 2021)

[5] Tondo, Lorenzo, ‘EU ‘has blood on its hands’, say activists calling for border agency’s abolition’, The Guardian, 18 June 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/jun/18/eu-has-blood-on-its-hands-say-activists-calling-for-frontex-border-agencys-abolition (accessed 25 June 2021)

[6] Fink, Melanie, Why it is so Hard to Hold Frontex Accountable: On Blame-Shifting and an Outdated Remedies System, Blog of the European Journal of International Law, 26 November 2020, https://www.ejiltalk.org/why-it-is-so-hard-to-hold-frontex-accountable-on-blame-shifting-and-an-outdated-remedies-system/ (accessed 25 June 2021)

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