Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard agency, will see its budget increase again, as it has been growing since the agency was created in 2004.
Formerly called the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, it assists Member States in controlling and securing the EU’s external borders. It carries out sea, air and land operations to control the flow of migrants arriving within the Schengen area. Frontex also provides technical and financial support to the Member States in returning irregular migrants to their countries of origin.
While in 2006 its budget was only 19 million euros per year, it rose to 460 million in 2020. And for the 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework, it is expected to reach the colossal annual sum of €900 million.
However, the agency has repeatedly been the target of accusations regarding human rights. And for the first time, it was the subject of judicial proceedings in May 2021. We have to go back to October 2020 to understand the full picture.
Indeed, almost a year ago, a joint investigation by several media (Spiegel, ARD, Bellingcat, Lighthouse Reports and TV Asahi) revealed that the EU agency, along with the Greek coastguard, had not only refused to help asylum seekers crossing the Aegean Sea on makeshift boats but had also obstructed the passage of some of them, confiscating their petrol cans and bringing them back into Turkish territorial waters.
Frontex denied any involvement at the time and the Greek government claimed that it was propaganda by the smugglers’ networks and added that their “country was protecting its borders with full compliance with international law”. Following this, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) started to investigate the agency’s activities. However, the case was not pursued in court.
In February 2021, a German NGO called Mare Liberum published a document that rubbed it in by providing evidence of nearly 10,000 deportations in 2020 by Frontex-assisted coastguards. As a result, several EU bodies investigated the agency, which halted its operations in Hungary following a European Court of Justice ruling that pointed to illegal deportations and transgressions of asylum law.
Two months later, several media put forward evidence directly incriminating the agency, claiming that Frontex agents had informed Libyan coastguards of the coordinates of refugee boats in the Mediterranean in order to intercept them before they set foot in Europe. This arrangement between a European agency and the Libyan authorities would be a clear breach of European and international law.
In May 2021, an appeal was lodged by lawyers from human rights organisations (Front-Lex and Progress Lawyers Network) promoting the rights of displaced persons, on behalf of two refugees (a Congolese minor and a Burundian woman) to the Court of Justice of the EU; it seems that they were both victims of violence at their arrival on the Greek island of Lesbos, before being turned away and abandoned on rafts in the Aegean Sea.
Despite all these events questioning the legitimacy of the agency, the latter plans to massively increase its budget and have more than 10,000 border guards and coast guards by 2027. Human Rights Watch has issued a report condemning Frontex not only for its inability to properly protect migrants arriving on the EU’s shores but also for abuses committed by its own agents. Eva Cossé, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, warns that “its rapid growth into an executive agency of the EU, with increased powers, funding, and legal responsibilities makes it all the more urgent for Frontex to put in place effective tools to safeguard fundamental rights” .