Of all the institutional creatures that have emerged from the European Union (EU) migration policy laboratory, the one that best defines the drift of the process is Frontex. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, by its formal name, began operating in 2005 with just 50 employees, six million euros and a mandate limited to technical interventions and risk analysis. Some 15 years later, it has multiplied its budget by 77 and its number of employees by 24, in an expansive budgetary and political trend that will continue in the coming years with the recruitment, deployment and equipping (including weapons) of 10,000 border guards.
Frontex’s discourse, its close link with the immigration control industry and a mandate that puts border impermeability before any other consideration have made this agency the symbol of the new European migration policy. But it seems to have acquired a life of its own, acting without transparency or effective control, assuming executive functions of the member states and turning the supposed migratory threat into a fabulous source of business. A drift that feeds the most reactionary drives of the EU and it can ruin an institution necessary for orderly and responsible border management.
Frontex stands out in the expansive area of Justice and Interior of the Union, which includes other agencies such as Europol, Eurojust, FROM, EASO –Future European Asylum Agency– and me-Lisa. The reform of the regulations of this agency in 2019 expanded its mandate and reinforced its operational autonomy vis-à-vis the Member States. In what Catherine Woollard, Director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, has described as “the risk of […] a kind of parallel foreign policy ”, today Frontex flies free: it hires and deploys its own staff; leads the European returns machine; or formalizes its presence in third countries through liaison officers and technical and operational support programs. To disturbing extremes: in January of this year, the agency approved itself the authorization to carry and use weapons, a measure that intensifies the militarization of interventions and that has been widely questioned due to its implications for the security of migrants and the image that transmits the EU from its borders.
Unfortunately, this constant growth of resources, capacities and autonomy has not been accompanied by an equivalent reinforcement in the mechanisms of transparency, accountability and external control. Those that were did not work or were ignored. The agency relies on the security exception to deny access to information to researchers, journalists and citizens. When they insist, the consequences can be costly. The members of the Corporate European Observatory Luisa Izuzquiza and Arne Semsrott were able to seat Frontex for the first time on the bench of the Court of Justice of the European Union for breach of its obligation of transparency. Sentence it rejected their petition and sentenced the plaintiffs – at the defendant’s indication – to pay exorbitant legal costs.
Despite the fact that Frontex has strict obligations regarding human rights and international protection, complaints of negligence or direct violations are beginning to accumulate
The draft of the new Migration and Asylum Pact of the EU (2020), as well as the recent European Strategy on Voluntary Return and Reintegration, reward Frontex with greater responsibilities and capabilities. It is a decision that some raise an eyebrow at. In a devastating report published in June this year, the European Court of Auditors states that Frontex’s performance has not been effective enough and doubts its ability to adequately perform the new operational role assigned to it. Meanwhile, the European Parliament had blocked in March and April 2021 the closure of the agency’s accounts for 2019, as a measure of pressure for its lack of transparency.
As serious as they may seem, irregularities in management are not the weakest flank of the new European gendarmes. Despite the fact that Frontex has strict obligations regarding human rights and international protection, complaints of negligence or direct violations are beginning to accumulate. There is a progressive inhibition of the agency in search and rescue operations, which are replaced by unmanned aerial observation missions. In addition to the complaints of collusion With the Greek authorities in violent rejections in the Aegean, Frontex has been accused of systematically communicating to the Libyan coast guard the location of migrant and refugee boats located in the Mediterranean, violating international law. The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) investigate for these facts to the CEO of Frontex and his management team.
If all of this information seems new to you, it may be because someone has gone to great lengths to hide it.
The current leadership of Frontex has also favored an undecorate relationship with the immigration control industry, whose lobbies They have marketed technology, services, and ideas. It is a profitable hamster wheel: the discourse of external danger demands increasingly harsh and effective solutions, which justifies million-dollar investments that must be propped up with new threats. The agency manages costly innovation projects, advises the European Commission on its border security strategies and contributes to the effective implementation of macro research programs such as Horizon 2020. Its vulnerability studies identify the operational needs of the Union and the Member States in matters of surveillance, analysis, biometrics, cybersecurity and availability or exchange of information. Each of these territories is a business opportunity for the industry.
If all of this information seems new to you, it may be because someone has gone to great lengths to hide it. 70% of the meetings held in 2018 and 2019 between Frontex and representatives of the military, security and biometric industry lacked registration, a practice to which managed to end the European Parliament.
Spain is both the cause and the effect of this questionable model. For our country – a nerve center of control of the outer perimeter of the EU – the European border agency offers important institutional and operational support, as well as an invaluable source of personal, material and financial resources. Since 2006, Frontex has deployed in Spanish territory three joint operations with the National Police and the Civil Guard: Hera, Indalo and Minerva. As pointed out in a recent juicy interview the former executive director of the agency, Gil Arias, our country marked the path of the rest of the EU in its outsourcing of immigration control.
However, relations have become more tense as Frontex expanded its capabilities, ambitions and mandate. Spain did not want to host critical points (hotspots) in its territory as Italy or Greece did in response to the reception crisis of 2015 and has been reluctant to cede control of the operations to the European agency. But these suspicions could be diluted if the situation in the Canary Islands becomes complicated and if Spain needs to make the European character of Ceuta and Melilla visible.
Each of these issues should set off the alarms of Europe’s democracies. But Frontex’s main sin may be its omission. Used as an effective border management mechanism, subject to the rule of law, transparency and human rights obligations, this agency could be a doubly useful instrument: as a mechanism for European integration and as a facilitator of a orderly, safe and advantageous immigration policy for all parties. Unfortunately, the organism’s drift and its determination to act in an opaque way and beyond democratic control have turned it into a very different creature, subject only to its own rules. And there is nothing more dangerous than a wild controller.
[Este artículo ha sido elaborado sobre la base de la investigación Frontex, el guardián descontrolado de la Fundación por Causa].
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.