At the heart of the political debate are quotas, border controls, and controversial plans, announced by the European Commission in December, for a new European border and coastguard agency.
Amid a climate of fear following the Paris attacks, the commission presented an ambitious proposal, aimed at “securing the EU’s borders… while safeguarding the principle of free movement of persons”.
Under the plan, Frontex, the current border guard agency, would be rolled into a bigger agency: A European Border and Coast Guard, with funding worth €322m by 2020, compared to the €238m due this year.
Although much of the commentary around the revamping of Frontex has stated the organisation’s current weakness, it already has access to ocean patrol vessels, dog teams, helicopters, thermovision vehicles, night-vision goggles, heartbeat detectors, and about 1,000 border guards.
The new agency, however, would be able to buy its own equipment, have a “rapid reserve pool of at least 1,500 experts that can be deployed in under three days”, and operate drones in the Med. Under the plan, officers could be deployed in an emergency without the approval of governments, giving it a much stronger mandate than the Frontex border teams.
The proposal, backed by France and Germany, has sparked heated political debate but member states in December agreed to “rapidly examine” the proposals aiming to reach agreement by mid-2016.
The enduring memories from Europe’s refugee influx over the past few years will undoubtedly be the heart-wrenching stories of lives lost in the Mediterranean.
Until the 1990s, there were relatively few drownings of migrants at sea, and it’s well documented that the only reason people resort to dangerous illegal crossings is because of Europe’s strict visa policies and carrier sanctions for airlines or ferries who take anyone without the correct papers. Over the past number of years, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and scores of smaller NGOs, have been documenting human rights abuses at Europe’s borders.
Theses include pushbacks at border crossings in Greece, Bulgaria, and Spain, where border authorities have denied people access to asylum procedures in direct breach of international law. Pushbacks are often accompanied by violence and put people’s lives in danger, Amnesty says. To date, no authority has been held accountable for such practices.
A report by Médecins Sans Frontières highlights the objectives of Frontex’s joint sea operations: To strengthen border controls, rather than to save lives at sea or offer safe, legal passage to people.
Late last year, Human Rights Watch documented attacks by masked men on boats with asylum seekers and migrants in the Aegean Sea. Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee program, said until there is meaningful accountability, the attacks will continue.
“The stretch of water that migrant boats have been crossing in large numbers is relatively narrow and widely known. Frontex is conducting a joint operation in those waters, as are Greek and Turkish coast guard patrols,” he said, suggesting that the agency knows about the attacks and does nothing.
A Frontex spokesperson said any allegation of ill- treatment or other violation of fundamental rights is reported to authorities in the respective member state and Frontex requests an probe is carried out.
“It is important to note the investigation on the alleged incidents is in all cases conducted by the host MS authorities, not by Frontex. Frontex monitors the developments on those investigations in all cases.”
While the world’s eyes are focused on the frontlines of the refugee influx into European territories, behind the scenes, the EU has been active on other fronts.
Since 2011, Frontex has powers to sign agreements with “third countries,” (countries outside the EU) as a way to “counter illegal/ irregular migration and related crossborder crime”, as well as to “strengthen security at relevant borders”.
This effectively pushes the EU’s borders outside of Europe. Frontex has deals with at least 17 countries such as Nigeria, Turkey, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
It has also been involved in Libya, training border guards, coast guards and border police officers. The idea behind this strategy is to make the border controls of third countries more effective, decreasing the chances of refugees and migrants getting to the EU.
NGO’s Statewatch, a non-profit that monitors civil liberties in the EU, and Frontexit (a campaign funded by the European Programme for Integration and Migration to highlight Frontex’s activities) claim it is difficult to get data about what goes on under these deals.
Frontexit says many people who entered Libya irregularly are forcibly removed. It claims border training from the EU increases the risk that migrants and refugees are detained in Libya and subsequently deported. For example, 25,000 people were deported from Libya between May 2012 and May 2013.
Since September 2015, Amnesty has documented cases of refugees being forcibly returned to Syria and Iraq after being intercepted by Turkish authorities while trying to reach the EU. Others have been arbitrarily detained without access to lawyers, the NGO contends.
Peter Sutherland, UN special envoy on migration, believes asylum assessment should take place in third countries, arguing it’s better people are vetted for eligibility before “risking everything and getting into rickety boats” to reach Europe, perhaps only to be deported. But, he stresses, this work should be carried out by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Nina Perkowski, a doctoral researcher on EU border controls at the University of Edinburgh, says this “outsourcing” of migration control has been ongoing since 2001. “Co-operation in migration ‘management’ is often a pre-condition for all sorts of agreements with the EU, including trade deals and development aid,” she says. “The EU envisions a ‘humane’ EU side of the border. The violence that is necessary to prevent people from moving would then also be ‘outsourced’ to third countries, and be outside of the jurisdiction of the EU.”
Perkowski has written a number of academic papers on Frontex. She believes strengthening the agency simply continues the path the EU has chosen over the last 10 years, which has led to unfathomable numbers of deaths at EU borders.