While European Union member states disagree over handling asylum seekers and immigrants, all agree to protect the bloc’s external borders is key. However, Frontex, the agency tasked with the job, is in crisis. Marina Strauss reports from Brussels.
Marko Gasperlin works for the Slovenian Ministry of the Interior and chairs the European Border and Coast Guard Agency’s management board or Frontex. Given the heated debate surrounding the agency’s failings and reported human rights violations, Gasperlin has urged a sober assessment of the organization’s conduct.
Gasperlin acknowledges that opinions diverge when it comes to protecting the bloc’s external borders. While EU policy, border agents, and coast guard are focused on preventing illegal migration into the bloc, human rights organizations have drawn attention to grave misconduct in this context.
That is why Gasperlin concedes that all cases of alleged wrongdoing must be investigated. At the same time, he stresses this “isn’t a black-and-white issue.”
Reports by media outlets and non-governmental organizations, however, do actually paint a clear picture. Frontex agents are accused of having looked on when national border guards conducted illegal, and at times violent, pushbacks against asylum seekers and migrants and the Bulgarian, Hungarian, Croatian and Greek border.
In December 2020, Gasperlin established a Frontex working group to look into these allegations. He told DW that eight reported misconduct cases were disproved, and a further five were still being examined. He says it is too early for him to draw any conclusions before the working group’s final report is published in late February.
In January, the media broke the news that the European Anti-Fraud Office or OLAF was also investigating alleged cases of bullying, fraud, and illegal pushbacks involving Frontex. OLAF has confirmed the probe yet stresses that Frontex remains innocent until proven guilty.
DW’s request for an interview with Frontex was turned down. An agency spokesperson informed DW in writing that the organization had faced numerous stumbling blocks that had since been addressed.
The spokesperson also said the organization’s growth had massive challenges compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the 1,500-strong agency plans to hire some 8,500 more border agents by 2027. Frontex hopes this will help tackle cross-border crime and assist EU states in controlling their frontiers and returning migrants within the bloc’s migration policy framework.
Not a Good Excuse
Some of these organizational changes may account for the agency’s problems. But Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik says, “I don’t think that’s a perfect excuse.” Like many other EU lawmakers, she believes Frontex’s director, Fabrice Leggeri, is largely to blame.
“I mean, it may be one of the explanations for sure, but then it should also have been Leggeri to say at a certain moment, ‘Look, this is going too rapidly; we need to do it more in phases and stages so that we can keep on track and remain compliant with all the EU obligations that we have,‘” she says.
However, Strik says Leggeri wanted “to have more and more and more.” The lawmaker says the Frontex director wanted the agency to take on “more tasks, for instance on return, internal security and cooperation with third countries,” and hire “more people as well.” Tineke Strik is skeptical that Leggeri is the right person to implement the reforms Frontex so urgently needs and would prefer to see him resign of his own volition.