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Frontex Reform Needed to Uphold Human Rights

Leadership Change Should Signal Rights-Oriented Shift in Europe’s Border Governance

A man holds a banner during a protest against pushbacks of migrants near the border crossing between Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina in Maljevac, Croatia, June 19, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo/Edo Zulic

Last week’s resignation of Fabrice Leggeri as the head of Frontex, the European Union border guard agency, should mean more than just a change at the top. Leggeri’s departure comes on the heels of an investigation by the European Union Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) that looked into numerous reports of Frontex’s complicity in illegal “pushbacks”, of forcing asylum seekers who crossed the Aegean Sea to try and enter Greece back to Turkey.

Evidence of serious abuses and shortcomings of the agency’s oversight mechanisms had been mounting for a while.

In October 2020, a joint media investigation coordinated by Lighthouse Reports concluded that Frontex may have been complicit in human rights violations at the Greek-Turkish maritime border. This April, the same international consortium revealed that Frontex’s database showed it was involved in such pushbacks.

My research into Frontex found that, despite numerous accountability mechanisms, it has failed to credibly investigate or mitigate pushbacks. That lack of accountability means abuses continue. In April, we published a report on pushbacks at the Greece-Turkey land border, which included accounts on Frontex guards utterly failing to ensure that migrants apprehended by Greek border police would be treated humanely.

Allegations of the agency’s complicity in pushbacks and the shortcomings of its reporting and monitoring mechanisms have led to multiple investigations by EU bodies and Frontex’s Management Board. In July 2021, the European Parliament charged Frontex management with ignoring reports, including video evidence, about human rights violations taking place where Frontex operates. It also said Leggeri had deliberately delayed hiring rights monitors.

Over the last year, Frontex has taken some important steps: a Fundamental Rights Officer is in place with a team of rights monitors, and the agency adopted a fundamental rights action plan.

Going forward, Frontex and its new leadership should put human rights at the heart of its operations. It should assess of the risk of its complicity in human rights violations, and ensure its rights monitors have adequate resources and can investigate abuse allegations independenly. It should also act on the monitors’ findings and recommendations, even terminating operations or funding in a member state if serious abuses are linked to its activities.

This would be the best way to ensure a strong EU border agency that guarantees the rights of people at Europe’s borders.

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