Geneva – The European Union's insistence on expanding the European Border and Coast Guard Agency’s (Frontex) powers without clear legal limits is disappointing and contradicts international standards regarding asylum seekers, Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor said in a statement.
The European Commission's announcement a few days ago of deploying a Frontex-operated plane to continuously monitor the shores of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, after the death of 27 people trying to cross the English Channel last week, is discouraging.
Frontex has continued to benefit from its ambiguous and constantly expanding role for years, ignoring all criticism, even from members of the European Parliament, and relying on the unconditional support of the European Union Commission and member states.
Last January, Euro-Med Monitor published a detailed report examining Frontex's involvement in illegal pushbacks by Greece in the Mediterranean, in addition to other various violations challenging relevant European and international human rights charters and conventions.
Several members of the European Parliament called for the immediate resignation of Frontex's Director Leggeri. Both the EU Ombudsman and OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud office, opened an inquiry on the Agency, and the European Commission asked for the implementation of overdue reforms.
The EU Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs also established a Scrutiny Working Group in March to investigate Frontex’s compliance of human rights. The final report was straightforward enough to acknowledge that the Agency was aware of the violations taking place at the EU's external borders and failed to act.
Michela Pugliese, Migration and Asylum Researcher at Euro-Med Monitor, said, “There is a large gap between the official move towards Frontex and the discontent of the European public opinion with it. The latter pushed the European official level to take positive steps towards holding Frontex accountable, but it remains minor and has limited impact and does not reflect the scale of popular anger at the agency's grave abuses against migrants and asylum seekers.”
“While the EU institutions’ approach towards Frontex still oscillates between mild condemnations and explicit support, the EU civil society’s relationship with the Agency is getting more and more openly hostile,” she said.
“Thanks to a recent wave of activism and public awareness, one of the EU's largest and costliest agencies is facing an unprecedented crisis, but the European Union, despite multiple steps forwards, is still reluctant to act," she added.
Pugliese said that although Frontex began its work in 2005, it came to be known – and despised – by the general public mainly in the last year due to the growing hostility of its practices against migrants and asylum seekers.
A number of civil society organizations requested the public to report on any “drift in Frontex's operations in terms of human rights, and to expose these abuses to the political representatives directly involved,” she said.
She added that this is clear from the quantity of the protest campaigns launched over this summer and the content of their requests: not to amend Frontex, but to defund and dismantle it.
The protests and accusations against Frontex unleashed a political storm across the continent, shaking the European institutions that all lined up to publicly reprimand the Agency in unusually harsh terms and to demand immediate and effective reforms, Pugliese said.
She drew attention to the positive development that occurred on 21 October, when an overwhelming majority of MEPs voted to freeze 12 per cent of the Agency’s 2022 budget until key improvements are made, including the recruitment of 20 fundamental rights’ monitors, the implementation of an adapted Serious Incident Report mechanism, and a fully functioning fundamental rights’ monitoring system.
“Today, thanks to the media investigations, civil society’s campaigns, and legal actions monitoring and denouncing Frontex’s violations and raising public awareness, the European Parliament has assumed a stronger role as a watchdog, and EU leaders can no longer avoid addressing the issue of Frontex’s accountability in public,” Pugliese said.
“Still, they face it only when blatant abuses catch the public eye.”
Frontex is an agency of the European Union headquartered in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, and is charged with controlling borders in the European Schengen area in coordination with the border and coast guards in the member states of the area.