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Frontex: should EU agency linked to thousands of deaths from border ‘pushbacks’ be responsible for migrant safety?

Frontex officers at the Bulgarian-Turkey border.
Frontex officers at the Bulgarian-Turkey border. The agency is due to expand its staff to 10,000 by 2027. Orestis Panagiotou/EPA

European member state security forces, supported by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex, have pushed back around 40,000 refugees attempting to cross national borders during the pandemic, according to an investigation based on UN reports and records kept by NGOs. These actions have been linked to 2,000 migrant deaths, chiefly from boats taken back out to sea.

For more than a decade, researchers, UN agencies and NGOs have documented these illegal pushbacks. Now the European Anti-Fraud Office has launched an investigation into Frontex over claims that it is involved in illegally preventing refugees and other migrants from entering the EU.

The investigation follows calls from Members of the European Parliament for the resignation of the agency’s executive director, Fabrice Leggeri, after evidence of pushbacks by Frontex was published last year by the news organisation, Lighthouse Reports. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees and the UN Migration Agency have now joined those demanding the European Union stop pushbacks at its borders.

Frontex’s budget is the largest of any EU agency, €544 million in 2021, and the agency wields increasing power over EU border management. Under the EU’s New Pact on Asylum and Migration policy, Frontex is set to receive increased funding and to double its uniformed border force staff to 10,000. Its scope of work will widen to include a leading role in the safe return of migrants deemed ineligible to stay in Europe.

However, the European Parliament has just postponed discharging the appointed budget to Frontex pending investigations.

What are pushbacks?

Pushbacks are where refugees and migrants are forced back over a border – generally immediately after they crossed it – without consideration of their circumstances and without any chance to apply for asylum.

Pushbacks violate several laws, including the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, which states refugees cannot be returned to a country where they could be caused harm and the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits the collective expulsion of aliens.

Migrants are pushed back by Frontex, by local police and border guards or by people smugglers. This can happen at sea when boats are detected and brought back to the country of departure, or on land when refugees and other migrants are denied entry and forced back to the previous non-EU country, often violently. One Afghan woman from our research described her experience travelling from Bosnia to Croatia into Slovenia:

We crossed the river to Slovenia, when we got there the police were waiting for us… The police there put us in the container and locked us in, all of our clothes were wet. We asked them to give us clothes but they didn’t. We were not even allowed to go to the toilet… All the families there, they were crying and begging that we walked for 12 days and all of our feet are injured, please let us stay and please send us to a camp. They told us that they cannot give us stay and we have to be sent back.

She and the other families involved were collectively ejected from the EU without being able to claim for asylum.

There are consequences when refugees and other migrants are pushed back. Most obvious is the case of Libya, where the subsequent torture, starvation and death of returned refugees and other migrants is widely known. Pushing migrants back to these conditions is a clear contradiction of the EU’s founding values. Refugees and other migrants pushed back to safe countries, such as those who cross the Channel from France to the UK, face less dire consequences as they can claim asylum in France.

Pushbacks do not necessarily stop migration. My research found that refugees and other migrants often persevere despite failed attempts. This is the case with Eritreans in Libya desperate to leave. And the majority of Afghans and Syrians we interviewed in Bosnia and Serbia saw no future for themselves in these countries, and continued trying to move onwards to the EU despite violent pushbacks.

Increased powers for Frontex

We should be alarmed that Frontex, an EU agency, is engaging in pushbacks. Some MEPs have said this, but reaction generally has been muted. In an era in which governments feel a pressing need to manage migration, refugees’ and other migrants’ rights often take a back seat to border management.

There is a need to ensure ethics and transparency in European institutions that hold a major responsibility in upholding justice. While the Frontex Scrutiny Group of the European Parliament begun in February is one means of oversight, the increase in Frontex’s powers has not been matched by greater transparency or accountability.

Given Frontex’s part in pushbacks, which violate international law and have caused the deaths of refugees and migrants, it is concerning that its expanded mandate would see Frontex given its own escort vessels, and be responsible for monitoring and recording returns of migrants and refugees to countries outside the EU.

When does a “return” cross the line into a pushback, and how will that line be drawn? How will fundamental rights of refugees and other migrants be protected when the agency responsible for upholding them is also complicit in breaching them?

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