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Frontex can’t solve the Mediterranean migration crisis on its own – here’s why

Another day, another challenge for Operation Triton. EPA/Francesco Arena

Europe in the past few weeks has been shocked by a record high in the number of migrants dying in the Mediterranean Sea. Facing this grave situation, EU political leaders pledged to work together to tackle the issue in an EU extraordinary summit held at the end of April. They proposed to triple the fund for Frontex, which has been coordinating two joint border operations – Triton and Poseidon – in the Mediterranean. However, these operations alone will not resolve the issue.

Frontex (“the European agency for the Management of Operational Co-operation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union”) was created in 2004 in Warsaw to facilitate cooperation between EU member states for border management. For this purpose, Frontex has implemented a wide variety of tasks. Joint operations in which multiple EU member states participate by sending their border guards and equipment is perhaps the most publicly visible one.

Frontex has also played a leading role in developing a border guard training package, analysing risks at borders in association with migration and establishing Eurosur, the EU-wide border surveillance system. It cannot be overstated that Frontex has become a core element in the EU’s response to irregular migration.

When Greece called for EU assistance to handle irregular migration at its borders with Turkey in 2010, Frontex co-ordinated a large-scale emergency operation in which almost all of the EU member states and the Schengen member states took part. When Spain’s Canary Islands were the main port of entry for irregular migration in the mid-2000s, Frontex responded by organising the Hera joint operation there.

Crisis in the Med

In the past few years, a large number of people from Libya have tried to cross the Mediterranean by taking a dangerous journey in the hands of smugglers in unsafe boats. The Italian search-and-rescue operation “Mare Nostrum” was replaced last November by Triton. According to my reckoning – based on Frontex’s own figures – 8,178 out of 26,800 migrants have been rescued by the Triton operation.

The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Federica Mogherini, and the commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, jointly stated prior to the EU extraordinary summit that the EU would launch “direct, substantial measures” intended to “make an immediate difference”. Increased funding for Triton is the first indication of this but, of course, it’s not as simple as just increasing a budget. There are a number of other important stumbling blocks in the way of an effective coordinated response.

Limited mandate

Firstly, Frontex operations alone cannot be a solution as the agency does not have the scope or ability to address the causes of the current migration crisis. It is too easy for us to think that once there is a problem at a border – the Mediterranean in this context – that the only solution needed is to strengthen border checks and surveillance. It’s not that simple. What is needed is to focus on why people are migrating in the first instance – migration does not start and end at the border.

When we start to understand this, we start to realise that the impact of any operations, whether search-and-rescue or border control, will always be very limited. The EU has addressed other areas that are linked to this, such as the issues of asylum application and the resettlement of migrants in need of protection and the need for engagement with countries surrounding Libya.

Frontex is about policing borders rather than humanitarian solutions. EPA/Bernd von Jutrczenka

But there is a great deal more to do – and there is serious time pressure. The EU must adopt a more holistic and detailed approach if it is to address this issue seriously.

Another problem Frontex has is that it cannot hold search-and-rescue operations as its top priority – the organisation’s mandate empowers it to focus on “control on persons” and “surveillance of external borders”. Frontex’s regulation obliges it to comply fully with human rights standards such as the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Geneva Convention, so that migrants’ access to international protection is ensured. Indeed Frontex has set up a consultative forum on fundamental rights providing for a fundamental rights officer, mandated to monitor its own activities.

But this doesn’t mean that Frontex has turned out to be a search-and-rescue agency. Its primary goal is still to help member states more effectively control the border and surveillance so that irregular migration is tackled. In this regard, the proposed plan by the EU last week will again be insufficient because it does not make any fundamental changes to Frontex’s operational goals.

Limited will

There is also no guarantee that EU member states will necessarily co-operate with Frontex. It’s often thought that Frontex has the power to mobilise member states in supplying border guards and equipment to its border operations – but in reality Frontex is no more than a coordinator with no real authority. It doesn’t have its own border guards and equipment, so its performance is considerably constrained by whether or not member states are willing to cooperate. There have been cases where Frontex has been hamstrung by having insufficient border guards and equipment to implement border operations.

When I interviewed former Frontex executive director, Ilkka Laitinen, he stressed that: “The key [for Frontex] is that member states believe in us”. If reports are true that some EU members have already rejected calls to supply resources for the enhanced Triton operation, it’s hard to predict how Frontex can hope to implement its Mediterranean mission.

There’s no doubt that the vast majority of the population of EU member states view the current situation in the Mediterranean crossing as a serious crisis. So Europe’s leaders must be made to see this crisis in terms of their own domestic political mandate. The vast majority of people in Europe recognise this as a human tragedy of grand proportions – it is time their leaders were made to do so as well.

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