The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) is facing scrutiny from all sides as the European Ombudsman, MEP’s, the Agency’s former deputy, and numerous NGOs are demanding responses and action, and revelations of its failures keep mounting.

The European Ombudsman concluded an own initiative inquiry on 15 June into the effectiveness and transparency of Frontex’s complaints mechanism and the role of the Fundamental Rights Officer (FRO). The inquiry revealed an extremely modest number of complaints (22 admissible complaints by January 2021) since the complaints mechanism was established in 2016 with none concerning the actions of Frontex staff members. The Ombudsman decision finds several factors may have contributed including: “(i) lack of awareness and understanding among potential complainants about the mechanism; (ii) fear of negative repercussions, coupled with the fact that it is not possible to submit anonymous complaints, (iii) stressful situations in which potential complainants find themselves; (iv) lack of engagement on the ground by Frontex deployed officers who could play a more active role in receiving and transmitting complaints to the FRO”. Further the Ombudsman notes delays by Frontex in implementing the “important changes” introduced by Regulation 2019/1896. The agency spent 13 months to ensure that the Management Board could adopt the rules on the FRO’s independence, and further 3 months to complete the procedure for appointing a new FRO which has “consequently been delayed”. The Ombudsman also notes that: “The 40 fundamental rights monitors have not yet been appointed, even though this process should have been completed by 5 December 2020”. The Ombudsman proposes a set of measures to introduce more accountability and transparency, including clarifying that officers should accept and transmit any complaints they receive and that complainants will not be penalised, the acceptance of anonymous complaints, the revision of rules to set out “clear and unambiguous steps for dealing with complaints about violations concerning the rules on the use of force”, and documentation of concrete actions taken by Frontex and Member States on recommendations by the Fundamental Rights Officer. Further, the Ombudsman decision from 16 June in reaction to a complaint over Frontex’s processing of requests for access to documents concerning contracts between Frontex and private companies: “encourages Frontex, in an effort to avoid delays, to improve its communication with applicants when attempting to find a fair solution on how to process extensive requests”.

A report is expected before the summer break from MEPs in the Frontex Scrutiny Group, following four months of fact-finding investigation to assess the functioning of the border agency and the reported fundamental rights violations. After the groups exchange on 23 June with Commissioner Johansson, Portuguese Minister of Interior Eduardo Cabrita and Frontex head, Fabrice Leggeri, author of the expected report, MEP Tine Strik (Greens, NL) was far from impressed, stating: “During the final Frontex hearing just now, I asked the Exec. Director how he intends to follow up on the pushbacks in Greece. According to him, Frontex already followed up. Apparently for Frontex a denial by the Greek authorities is sufficient to ensure accountability”.

Former deputy director at Frontex, Gil Arias Fernández has given his first public interview after leaving the agency: “I do not believe that the agency has proactively violated the rights of migrants, but there are reasons to believe that it has turned a blind eye” he said. On the agency’s independency he added: “There is a lot of pressure on the part of certain states to put their people in positions of responsibility. Whether the agency is headed by a Frenchman or a Finn may determine whether there is more or less sensitivity to migration problems. The agency is independent, but ‘independent’ should be put in quotation marks because without a fluid relationship with the [European] commission, you have a hard time”. Further, Fernández noted on recruitment: “There is no filter in the recruitment system. You cannot prevent people with extremist ideas from entering, unless they clearly express their position in favour of hate crimes, xenophobia and racism”.

Frontex has yet to respond to documentation from Human Rights Watch (HRW) of the agency’s failure “to act promptly or at all in the face of credible evidence of abuse” in Hungary, Greece and Croatia, all countries where the agency has major operations. A recent report on violent pushbacks from Greece, Amnesty International urges Frontex to trigger Article 46 of Regulation (EU) 2019/1896 “with a view to suspending or withdrawing its deployment in Greece” and states: “All incidents in this report allegedly took place in areas where Frontex is operational. However, little clarity exists as to the number, origin, and location of deployment of Frontex officers (including whether they are deployed in the proximity of the border), which affects the transparency and accountability of the agency’s actions”. Frontex Fundamental Rights Officer, Jonas Grimheden told MEPs on 3 June, just a few days into his position: “I think the enjoyment of fundamental rights are not necessarily best served by pulling out on behalf of Frontex but by constructively engaging”. The Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) has submitted a legal complaint against Frontex head, Fabrice Leggeri for “aggravated defamation by the press” on behalf of themselves and 27 people who were “illegally deported”. GHM spokesperson Panayote Dimitras states: “The claim that there are no illegal pushbacks of foreigners and, above all, that the relevant allegations are based only or mainly on videos provided by… the Turkish Coast Guard are false and defamatory for GHM and the victims of illegal and in fact violent expulsions from Greek territory GHM represents”. Activists, captains of rescue ships and about 80 human rights organisations across the globe are calling for the dismantling of Frontex. The German captain Carola Rackete from the civil search and rescue organisation Sea-Watch, who was recently cleared of charges in Sicily, stated: “If we truly believe all humans are equal then we have to dismantle the systems which keep inequality in place. Frontex, as part of the border-industrial complex, has no place in our vision of a European society striving for justice and committed to repairing damages inflicted on the global south in a mindset of white supremacy”. Statewatch and Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) have sent a joint letter to Frontex head Leggeri, the agency’s new Fundamental Rights Officer, and the Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights calling for investigations into reports that officials deployed on Frontex operations have participated in or condoned violence against people on the move in North Macedonia.

For further information:

 Photo: (CC) Rock Cohen, November 2010

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.