After last week’s tragedy in the English Channel, the EU border agency will be deployed to sight boats that attempt crossings, marking the first time it could be used to stop migration from the EU, rather than into the bloc.
After 27 people died attempting to cross the English Channel last week, French interior minister Gerald Darmanin announced that a plane operated by the EU Border Agency, Frontex, will patrol above the shores of France, the Netherlands and Belgium to stop the smuggling of migrants and refugees across the English Channel. Seven women and three children are among the victims of the gravest incident recorded in years in the short stretch of sea that divides Britain from France.
After the two countries traded blame following the tragedy, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel was disinvited to a meeting of EU ministers on the crossings, which have been increasing sharply since the beginning of the year: from just over 8,000 in 2020 to more than 23,000 so far this year.
As Britain withdrew from EU treaties and agreements in December 2020, it also exited the bloc’s common asylum system and the Dublin Regulation, a mechanism to determine the member state responsible for examining an asylum application – usually, the country of first entry into the EU.
Exiting the common asylum system also meant that there is no longer a route for family reunification to the UK from other European countries. Alongside an increase in controls of lorries crossing the Channel Tunnel, this contributed to a significant increase in the number of people attempting the perilous journey.
“We have to prevent lives being lost. We have to prevent chaos coming to our external borders," EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told reporters after the meeting at Calais City Hall on Sunday, where ministers decided a Frontex plane will be deployed starting on December 1.
This would be the first time the EU border agency is deployed to stop migration from the EU, as opposed to preventing refugees and migrants from reaching European shores.
What is Frontex?
Frontex is an agency of the European Union tasked with “managing” the bloc’s external land and sea borders. It currently has 15 ongoing operations in EU border countries including Spain, Lithuania, Italy, Greece and Bulgaria, as well as in countries of transit to the EU such as Albania and Montenegro.
Founded in 2005, it deploys border guards and sea patrols, monitors the bloc’s external borders for illegal activities, and carries out repatriations of failed asylum seekers.
More controversially, it has been accused of involvement in illegal pushbacks of migrants and refugees at the EU’s external borders, including in Greece, Croatia and Romania. Pushbacks violate the principle of non-refoulement enshrined in international refugee law.
The agency has come under scrutiny from human rights groups and several institutions and legal bodies. It is currently subject to more than ten investigations by the European Parliament, the European Ombudsman and the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog (OLAF).
Largest budget of any EU agency
Frontex’s budget has swelled since the agency was first established. It reached €544 ($613) million in 2021, while its proposed budget for 2022 is more than €750 million ($845) – the largest of any EU agency.
The European Parliament asked to freeze 12 percent the agency’s budget for 2022 following reports raising concerns about human rights abuses and corruption. The €90 million ($100 million) put on reserve will be released on condition the agency addresses its shortcomings, including by setting up a mechanism to report serious incidents at the EU’s borders, and recruiting 20 fundamental rights monitors.
The agency’s uniformed border staff is set to double by 2027 to 10,000.
Increasing role in deportations
According to a report circulated by Frontex to EU member states and published last week by European civil liberties NGO Statewatch, Frontex deported a record number of people in 2021: 8,300 people in the first half of 2021, the largest ever number for a six-month period, according to Statewatch. While EU member states also run their own deportations, the numbers show an increasing reliance on the agency for border control operations.
The report also showed the overall number of operations where at least one human rights monitor was present on board the flight had decreased by 7 percent. Between January and June 2021, 61 percent of people returned by Frontex were “voluntary” returns, while 39 percent were forcibly returned, according to the agency’s own report.
Pushbacks and human rights abuses
Several investigations found the agency is directly or indirectly involved in pushbacks that, according to a Guardian investigation, have cost at least 2,000 deaths during the pandemic.
The EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, launched an investigation against Frontex in January over allegations of harassment, misconduct and unlawful operations aimed at stopping migrants from reaching the EU.
In July, a European Parliament report found the agency overlooked evidence of illegal pushbacks at the EU’s external borders and “failed to address and follow-up on these violations promptly, vigilantly and effectively.” The report did not find direct involvement of the agency in the particular incidents it scrutinises. Human rights watch and other human rights groups also accuse Frontex of failing to protect people at the EU’s borders. Frontex has denied the accusations.
Violent pushbacks in the Aegean Sea, where refugees and migrants are returned to Turkey from Greece, have been reported since at least October 2020.
Frontex has also been playing an increasingly important role in the return of refugees and migrants to abusive detention conditions in Libya. Trained and funded by the European Union, the Libyan coastguard has intercepted tens of thousands of people in the last few years, with Frontex planes patrolling the central Mediterranean to detects boats at sea and communicate their position.
So far this year, 41 percent of more than 158,000 people that attempted crossing the Mediterranean were intercepted, according to the UN, and more than 1,600 are reported dead or missing.