Europe Accidentally Built an ‘Amnesty International With Guns’

The EU’s border and coast guard agency is expanding fast—but member states find it too soft to rely on.

de-Gruyter-Caroline-foreign-policy-columnist6
de-Gruyter-Caroline-foreign-policy-columnist6
Caroline de Gruyter
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
The Frontex logo is seen in Warsaw, Poland.
The Frontex logo is seen in Warsaw, Poland.
The logo of European Union border force Frontex is pictured at the headquarters in Warsaw, Poland, on Aug. 5, 2019. WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

For years, Frontex, Europe’s border and coast guard agency, was a tiny affair of modest means, tucked away in Warsaw, Poland. The European Union’s external borders were rather open, controlled by national border guards. But in the last decade, especially since the 2015 refugee crisis, when those borders came under increasing pressure, European citizens and governments have demanded greater protection and Frontex has expanded rapidly. One thousand seven hundred Frontex border and coast guards and other officials now assist national border guards, police, and migration officials on Greek islands, French airports, and countries including Malta, Gibraltar, Lithuania, and Italy. The agency, which is supposed to have a standing force of 10,000 by 2027, also helps to surveil migrant boats crossing the Channel.

Frontex’s expansion clearly shows how—because of migration pressures, COVID-19, a sharp increase in cocaine smuggling, and a heightened fear of terrorist attacks—questions of security and risk assessment on the continent are becoming less national and more European.

But there is a problem. Countries at Europe’s eastern external border, who had pushed hardest for the agency to be set up in 2004 for fear they would be left policing common European borders alone, often feel hampered when Frontex comes to their assistance with “rights officers” and media in tow. Meanwhile, in places where national border guards could use European assistance most—at the Polish-Belarusian, Hungarian-Serbian and Bulgarian-Turkish borders, for example—Frontex is almost nowhere to be seen.

For years, Frontex, Europe’s border and coast guard agency, was a tiny affair of modest means, tucked away in Warsaw, Poland. The European Union’s external borders were rather open, controlled by national border guards. But in the last decade, especially since the 2015 refugee crisis, when those borders came under increasing pressure, European citizens and governments have demanded greater protection and Frontex has expanded rapidly. One thousand seven hundred Frontex border and coast guards and other officials now assist national border guards, police, and migration officials on Greek islands, French airports, and countries including Malta, Gibraltar, Lithuania, and Italy. The agency, which is supposed to have a standing force of 10,000 by 2027, also helps to surveil migrant boats crossing the Channel.

Frontex’s expansion clearly shows how—because of migration pressures, COVID-19, a sharp increase in cocaine smuggling, and a heightened fear of terrorist attacks—questions of security and risk assessment on the continent are becoming less national and more European.

But there is a problem. Countries at Europe’s eastern external border, who had pushed hardest for the agency to be set up in 2004 for fear they would be left policing common European borders alone, often feel hampered when Frontex comes to their assistance with “rights officers” and media in tow. Meanwhile, in places where national border guards could use European assistance most—at the Polish-Belarusian, Hungarian-Serbian and Bulgarian-Turkish borders, for example—Frontex is almost nowhere to be seen.

National authorities in Europe are used to doing what they think is needed to control the border. Ostensibly, while following national procedures they must respect fundamental rights of people, as laid down in European and international law. The Geneva conventions, for example, forbid refoulement, or sending people back into danger. But it turns out refusing entry is not necessarily refoulement: the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2020 that pushbacks of people who use force and irregular means to cross the border are actually legal.

And when pressure mounts, the gloves come off. Polish, Lithuanian, Greek and Hungarian border guards have all been accused of pushing back, humiliating and beating migrants. Recently, even an interpreter working for Frontex was stripped and beaten by Greek border guards before being pushed into Turkey. Spanish border guards in Ceuta and Melilla, insiders say, push back people on a daily basis. This seldom provokes an outcry. It only makes headlines in emergencies—for instance, in May, when Morocco opened its side of the border, allowing thousands of young men to storm the Spanish side.

Since national authorities often keep nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and journalists away from the front lines, testimony of unlawful practices often comes from victims. They have a hard time proving it, with national authorities usually denying any wrongdoing.

Frontex, by contrast, is under heavy scrutiny by the European Parliament, NGOs, and the media. Its first years (it was founded in 2004) were quiet and uneventful, with borders mostly open and no real challenges in sight. Then, because of rising migration pressures and terrorist attacks during the last decade, the agency’s powers and budget increased—as did scrutiny of its actions.

By now, Frontex has been fiercely criticized in reports by members of the European Parliament, the European Ombudsman, and the journalists’ network Bellingcat for assisting in pushbacks on Greek islands. Consequently, it was forced to conduct internal investigations. The agency’s French director, Fabrice Leggeri, often receives dressing-downs in the European Parliament, with parliament members routinely demanding his resignation.

In response, Frontex has become more cautious. Last year, it promised to hire 40 fundamental rights officers to ensure disciplined staff behavior and strict adherence to European norms and values. Their coordinator, Jonas Grimheden, recently said Frontex “could be seen as being implicated or supportive of fundamental rights violations” in some member states.

When Frontex is dispatched somewhere, “it is under a strong looking-glass,” said Raphael Bossong, a migration expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. “National border guards get much less attention. This is why several EU countries prefer to work with their own border guards.” Some say asking Frontex to come help means “inviting Human Rights Watch and the Guardian, too.” .

Thus, Frontex is trapped between EU member states and the European Parliament. Member states want the extra boots on the ground and equipment Frontex often brings, but not the oversight that comes with it. An insider in European border management said, “If Frontex were half as tough as they say, member states would be very open to it.” Some call the agency “Amnesty International with guns.”

Bulgaria rejected Frontex involvement at the Turkish border from the start. Bulgarian border guards are known as heavy-handed, often beating back migrants and refugees. This is why Syrian or Afghan refugees who try to reach Europe via Turkey often avoid the Bulgarian route: They know chances are they will be beaten back.

In contrast, Frontex agents initially did help patrol the Hungarian border with Serbia. But they were quickly accused of turning a blind eye to systemic human rights violations and standing by while Europe’s obligations to offer the possibility of asylum were violated. Because of this, Frontex suspended its operations in Hungary in February. Hungary, which now has a free hand when it comes to conduct, is not unhappy with this.

Poland has also refused any Frontex presence at its border with Belarus. It is unhappy with the agency on its territory—Frontex is manned by mostly Eastern Europeans, who applied when the agency started recruiting for its standing border and coast guard in 2020, but managed by mostly Western Europeans. Poland, said migration and security expert Roderick Parkes of the German Council on Foreign Relations think tank, “is fed up with German ‘moralizing’ in Europe, and tired of taking lessons from Brussels.” Despite insistence from Berlin and Brussels, where Frontex is seen not just as a solution to a European problem but also as a tool for European state building, Poland gave the agency a cold shoulder. It only allows Frontex to organize readmission of illegal migrants who come via Belarus back into their home countries.

Originally, Frontex did not want to do readmissions, arguing border guards are not immigration officials. But now it organizes readmissions for other EU countries, too—for example, by chartering flights and picking up Somalis in several European countries en route to Mogadishu, Somalia. Frontex is currently negotiating a readmission agreement with Pakistan, promising to push up return rates next year.

It looks like Frontex officers will become EU return officers. Fundamental rights watchdog Statewatch already calls Frontex “the EU’s deportation machine.”

Over 100 Frontex border guards are deployed at the Lithuania-Belarus border. When Lithuanian border guards used rough methods to stop people pushing in or being pushed in, Frontex raised alarm, afraid it would be made responsible for standing idly by. Lithuanians, however, expected support, not lectures, when their border was almost overrun. Leggeri, fearing another scandal in the European Parliament, promptly asked the European Commission for instructions. Reportedly, the response was too vague to be helpful.

So, 17 years after Frontex was founded, the question is really: Does Europe allow it to police EU external borders or not? The controversy and debates surrounding the agency show how difficult it is for Europe to uphold the values and principles it proudly developed in calmer days while navigating today’s turbulent world.

Worse, EU member states are divided about Frontex’s direction. With Eastern European countries finding the agency too soft, Germany tries to compromise and go slow, hoping that gradually Frontex will find its role at the EU’s eastern borders while upholding European values. France, however, seems more inclined to leave policing the EU’s external borders to national border guards, letting Frontex concentrate on the protection of a smaller group of countries. France has long been in favor of a two-speed Europe in which the core integrates faster than the periphery. This puts Poland in a bind: While it does not want Frontex at its borders, its deepest fear is to be frozen out of the EU.

EU member states seem to have created the border management equivalent of a glass hammer—an expensive oddity, weakened by a lack of consensus over its role and functioning. The heart of the problem is not so much Frontex, despite multiple teething problems, but a debate over whether the EU should have an external border guard at all, and what that should look like. Even if 10,000 European border guards stand on the Polish and Lithuanian borders, what can they do if they are not allowed to refuse anyone entry?

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She currently lives in Brussels.

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