Fabrice Leggeri, the head of Frontex — the E.U.’s border agency, resigned last month amid allegations of complicity in illegal pushbacks of people seeking asylum. In an article for The Irish Times, Sally Hayden reflects on the E.U.’s plan to expand and strengthen Frontex further despite major criticism of the agency’s treatment of people on the move.
The resignation of Leggeri
In Leggeri’s resignation letter, he said that the mandate on which he was elected had “silently but effectively been changed.” Hayden points out that most people took this statement as “a commentary on how much, or how little, Leggeri saw human rights principles as being relevant to his position: to guard Europe’s borders.”
Daniel Howden, managing director of collaborative journalism organization Lighthouse Reports, said that he understood the confusion from Leggeri in his letter. Hayden quotes Howden in The Irish Times:
“[Leggeri] provided the technical veneer and deniability that EU member states wanted … Let’s not pretend Frontex went rogue. This was done in service of states, they just wanted it done out of sight.”
As well as receiving significant criticism for the agency’s mistreatment of people on the move, Leggeri was being investigated by the E.U.’s anti-fraud agency, Olaf, when he resigned.
What is Frontex accused of?
NGOs and activists have documented cases in which Frontex’s operations have led to illegal pushbacks of people traveling to Europe to seek asylum in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean.
While Frontex no longer conducts naval patrols in the Central Mediterranean Corridor, the agency has been accused of passing information obtained through aerial surveillance to enable the Libyan Coast Guard to return people. Hayden describes this arrangement as “a circumnavigation of international law that prohibits people from being returned to a place where their lives are in danger.”
This system is resulting in thousands of people being returned to a country which is not safe for them. Indeed, nearly 1,000 people were forced back to Libya in less than a week just this month. Since the E.U. first began spending millions in training and equipment for the Libyan Coast Guard in 2017, over 93,000 returns have been recorded.
This support is granted despite ample evidence of the Libyan Coast Guard disrupting NGO rescue missions, and endangering lives in the process.
The future of Frontex
Considering Leggeri’s resignation and the allegations that Frontex’s operations are facilitating the systematic endangerment of the lives of people on the move, what is next for the agency?
Frontex is set to continue expanding. Since the agency was first established in 2004, its budget has shot up from €6 million to almost €550 million. Plans for further expansion include the recruitment of 10,000 border and coastguards in the next five years.
There are also suggestions that the agency may deploy to new areas. European commissioner Ylva Johansson recently proposed Frontex patrol the waters on the west African coast to curb the irregular movement of people to Spain’s Canary Islands.
Call on governments to stop exacerbating trafficking
A movement against Frontex and the impunity of governments when it comes to their treatment of people on the move is building. Hayden writes:
Advocates say the time for change is now: that 70 years after the global refugee system as we know it began, the world is facing a pivotal challenge when it comes to the treatment of people who are attempting to reach safety. The rich world is increasingly spending huge amounts of money to keep out refugees and migrants – and only making the plight of the oppressed much worse.
The Freedom United community is raising awareness about how tough border regimes are not stopping human trafficking, but creating vulnerabilities to exploitation and abuse among people on the move.