BRUSSELS – The European Union’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, the pride of the 27-nation bloc’s enormous effort to guard its borders and anyone who might try to enter without authorization, is itself under surveillance – and under fire.
Almost literally sometimes: In the Aegean Sea, Turkish fighter jets and ships buzzed with Frontex planes or intimidated agency ships by monitoring the movement of migrants in the narrow strip of sea between Turkey and the Greek eastern islands. Turkish troops reportedly fired warning shots into the air and onto the land border.
And calls have arrived in the European Parliament for CEO Fabrice Leggeri to resign. Some lawmakers say he erred in allegations that the agency was involved in fundamental violations of migrants’ rights.
Charities and the media accuse Frontex of denying people the right to apply for asylum – which is illegal under EU law and refugee agreements. They say she too was an accomplice in the Greek Coast Guard, or failed to prevent alleged volleyball at sea, where migrants were returned to Turkish waters.
Although the agency was supposed to hire 40 fundamental rights officers by December, it still hasn’t.
The investigation found no link between Frontex returnees and the Aegean. But Parliament has set up a “control group” to delve into reports and human rights concerns. The EU Anti-Fraud Office is also looking at them, as are senior management’s allegations of misconduct.
Even as criticism increases, Frontex’s powers grow. In the coming years, the agency is projected to increase to 10,000 troops, with armed officers and high-tech control equipment. Its budget increased to 5.6 billion euros ($ 6.7 billion) over the next seven years.
In 2014, a year before the EU migrant challenge peaked, the agency had an annual budget of around € 100 million and had to request border staff from member states.
Its role is also expanding. Recently, when the United Kingdom left the EU, it insisted that Frontex manage border controls at an airport in British Gibraltar territory, rather than Spanish officers.
But as Frontex’s powers and duties grow, so does the need for oversight.
“In my opinion, it is the most important agency in the entire European Union. And with power and funding comes responsibility, and of course safeguards and oversight, ”EU Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson told investigative lawmakers on March 4th.
Moreover, any failure in Frontex is an additional disgrace for countries that have been deeply divided for years about who should take responsibility for people entering without permission and whether other Member States should be obliged to help.
“In the absence of the EU to agree on migration management, what is happening on the ground is firmly shaping the way the EU is viewed from the outside,” Hanne Beirens of the Institute for Migration Policy told the Associated Press.
The question is: who exactly is in charge when it comes to Frontex?
The Agency is overseen by the Steering Board of the National Ministry of Interior, Police and Border Officers, which determines its work plan and work. The commission, which monitors compliance with EU law, has two of the 28 seats on the board.
Leggeri, a French civil servant appointed executive director in 2015 just as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees arrived in Europe, is tasked with implementing the board’s strategy. Deputy director positions and a number of other senior positions have not been filled.
On paper, Frontex is legally liable to the 27 member states and the European Parliament. The Commission, through Johansson, has political but not legal responsibility for Frontex’s actions.
However, at sea or on land borders, Frontex operations are controlled by the State in whose territory they take place. In the Aegean Sea, where many rejections have been recorded, that means the Greek Coast Guard. This is where the lines of responsibility become blurred.
Frontex and Greece vehemently deny any feedback, and the investigation has cleared the agency, although it has revealed shortcomings in “monitoring and reporting.” But Leggeri twice asked Athens last year to investigate the behavior of the Greek Coast Guard.
He also told EU lawmakers that Athens, when waving thousands of migrants to its borders with Greece last March, Athens decided urgently “to make optimal use of interception provisions” to stop the influx attempt.
That means, Leggeri said, “that in some cases migrant boats can be instructed not to stay in territorial waters or not to enter.” To some, this might seem like the very definition of refusal, and the question arises: should Frontex be complied with when an order to intercept a migrant boat actually violates the law?
These vague legal definitions, unclear lines of command and conflicting interests of coastal or inland EU member states make the Frontex complex complex to command.
German Conservative MP Lena Duepont – a member of the European Parliament’s “scrutiny group” – told the AP she had enough room to improve the agency’s “management ecosystem”, especially the way Frontex is growing.
“This is the first time we have someone carrying a gun, someone wearing a European uniform,” as part of a permanent corps, not officers sent at the request of member states, she said. Frontex is more “European than ever before, and this is a drastic change in the agency.”
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