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Frontex: Protecting the EU's borders at any cost?

Marina Strauss
February 12, 2021

While EU member states disagree over how to handle asylum-seekers, all agree protecting the bloc's external borders is key. But Frontex, the agency tasked with the job, is in crisis. Marina Strauss reports from Brussels.

Border policeman with Frontex arm band
Frontex is facing numerous allegations of having violated human rightsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

Marko Gasperlin works for the Slovenian Ministry of the Interior, and chairs the management board of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). Given the heated debate that has surrounded the agency's failings and reported human rights violations, he has urged a sober assessment of the organization's conduct.

Gasperlin acknowledges that opinions diverge when it comes to protecting the bloc’s external borders. While EU police, border agents and coast guard are focused on preventing illegal migration into the bloc, human rights organizations have drawn attention to grave misconduct in this context.

Marko Gasperlin
Marko Gasperlin chairs Frontex's management boardImage: Slovenian Police

That’s why Gasperlin concedes that all cases of alleged wrongdoing must be investigated. At the same time, he stresses this "isn’t a black-and-white issue."

Reports by media outlets and nongovernmental organizations, however, do actually paint a clear picture. Frontex agents are accused of having looked on when national border guards conducted illegal, and at times violent, pushbacks against asylum-seekers and migrants along the Bulgarian, Hungarian, Croatian and Greek bordesr.

Last December, Gasperlin established a Frontex working group to look into these allegations. He told DW that eight cases of reported misconduct were disproved and a further five were still being examined. He says it is too early for him to draw any conclusions before the working group’s final report is published in late February.

Mounting problems

In January, media broke the news that the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) was also investigating alleged cases of bullying, fraud and illegal pushbacks involving Frontex. OLAF has confirmed the probe, yet stresses that Frontex remains innocent until proven guilty.

DW's request for an interview with Frontex was turned down. An agency spokesperson informed DW in writing that the organization had faced "numerous stumbling blocks" that had since been "addressed."

The spokesperson also said the organization's growth had entailed "massive challenges," which were compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the 1,500-strong agency plans to hire some 8,500 more border agents by 2027. Frontex hopes this will help to tackle cross-border crime and to assist EU states to control their frontiers and return migrants within the framework of the bloc's migration policy.

Man seen from back wearing Frontex uniform, standing next to a Frontex logo
Frontex proudly announced its new uniform in JanuaryImage: Twitter/Frontex

Not a 'good excuse'

Some of these organizational changes may account for the agency’s problems. But Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik says, "I don't think that's a very good excuse." She, like many other EU lawmakers, believes Frontex's director, Fabrice Leggeri, is largely to blame.

Tineke Strik
Tineke Strik says Frontex lacks transparencyImage: DW/D. Dobric

"I mean, it may be one of the explanations for sure, but then it should also have been Leggeri to say at a certain moment, 'Look, this is going too rapidly; we need to do it more in phases and stages so that we can keep on track and remain compliant with all the EU obligations that we have,'" she says.

But Strik says Leggeri wanted "to have more and more and more." The lawmaker says the Frontex director wanted the agency to take on "more tasks, for instance on return, internal security and cooperation with third countries," and hire "more people as well." Tineke Strik is skeptical that Leggeri is the right person to implement the reforms Frontex so urgently needs and would prefer to see him resign of his own volition.

Frontex is considered an extremely hierarchical organization that lacks transparency in its conduct and approach to addressing problems. "Frontex should be open eyes, open ears, very human-rights-sensitive and really wanting to know whether something is going wrong," says Strik. But, she adds: "This is not what I sense is happening at the moment."

Fabrice Leggeri
Critics have called on Fabrice Leggeri to resignImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/V. Mayo

Border protection is top priority

Naturally, Frontex does not operate in a political vacuum. EU member states prioritize the protection of the bloc's external borders, says Strik, which is why they want to see Frontex grow. Many states hope this will prevent the influx of Europe-bound migrants. Many nongovernmental organizations, meanwhile, accuse EU states of subordinating human rights considerations in the process.

Lena Düpont, a German MEP with the conservative EPP Group, say EU member states should increase their funding to Frontex to grow its personnel if they want the agency. She is reticent in her assessment of Leggeri, but says it is good that there is the new Frontex Scrutiny Working Group in the European Parliament, which subjects Frontex to critical scruting. She says there are obviously many issues that still need to be discussed within the Frontex management board.

Lena Düpont
Lena Düpont says EU member states must step up financially if they want FrontexImage: privat

Marko Gasperlin, who chairs that management board, tells DW he cannot comment on allegations of misconduct. He insists, however, that Frontex is investigating them. Then he tells DW that "not everyone who arrives [in the EU] is in need and entitled to asylum."

All the same, the EU must grant every person the right to apply for such protection.

This article has been translated from German.


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