Frontex in the Balkans – security before human rights?

Security before human rights?

The notion of a Europe with increasingly porous internal borders (due to the Schengen agreement and limited visa liberalisation) has gone hand in hand with increased attempts to control the movement of non-EU citizens across the external borders and – at the national level – increasingly restrictive immigration policies. In 2005 Frontex was created to strengthen “the freedom and security of the citizens of the EU by complementing the national border management systems of the Member States”, which has meant that Frontex works with EU states to prevent smuggling, human trafficking, and illegal immigration. Ultimate responsibility for those borders remains with the Member States (though as the arrangements for Schengen are now institutionalised in a Regulation which has direct application in national law, one could argue that, at least in theory, much of national competence in relation to border management has been superseded by EU law. Nonetheless, the implementation of the Schengen Borders Code is very much a matter for the Member States).

In addition to its regular operations, Frontex offers help “to Member States in circumstances requiring increased technical and operational assistance”. The most recent example of this was in November 2010 when Frontex sent a team of 175 border guards to the Evros region of Greece, after the authorities there reported a massive increase in illegal crossings of the Greek-Turkish border. Between 2 November 2010 and 1 March 2011, almost 12,000 were apprehended, the largest group of whom were from Afghanistan (23%), followed by Pakistan (16%), Algeria (11%), Palestine (7%) and Morocco (7%). After their arrest by Frontex, the migrants were passed on to the Greek police. Frontex’s Evaluation Report for the €5 million operation declares that it “must be seen as a success.” Only glancing reference is made to the treatment of migrants once they had been handed over to the Greek police:

There remains much room for improvement, not least in terms of detention conditions and provision for migrants after entry.

However, in September 2011 Human Rights Watch published a report based on interviews in five detention centres in the region, alleging that Frontex had consistently ignored the torture, beating, and systematic degradation of illegal migrants. The report claimed males and females had been held together in overcrowded cells, beds were scarce, toilet and washing facilities almost nonexistent, medical help rare, and beatings common for those who protested. In themselves, these were not new allegations; earlier in the year the European Court for Human Rights had ruled against Greece in its treatment of an Afghan asylum seeker- in the opinion of the court, sending any illegal immigrant to Greece was to knowingly expose them to “conditions of detention and living conditions that amounted to degrading treatment”.

Frontex did not deny that abuses occurred, but defended itself by arguing that it could not be held accountable for what happened to the detainees. According to Michele Cercone, the European Commission spokesman for internal affairs, Frontex “should not be held responsible for the failings of a member state, in this case Greece.” Frontex (whose motto is ‘Libertas Securitas Justitia’) claimed it was an organisation which “fully respects and strives for promoting Fundamental Rights in its border control operations which, however, do not include organisation of, and responsibility for, detention on the territory of the Member States, which remains their exclusive remit.” Frontex further defended itself by claiming that its non-participation “would have done nothing to help the situation of migrants”, arguably a somewhat baffling claim, given that being arrested (let alone sent to the Greek detention centres) was of questionable benefit to the migrants. The issue is not only what Frontex, as an EU body, should be accountable for, but also to whom. A House of Lords EU Committee in 2007 was of the opinion that “there are not specific structures in place through which Frontex is accountable to and can take guidance from democratic bodies … it is accountability to the public at large or to the political system at large ... that is lacking” (QQ 428, 432). Frontex has since been granted a permanent role in Greece, but there is now a proposal to amend the access to documents legislation currently under consideration, so as to bring Frontex and other agencies within its scope (as per the Treaty of Lisbon).

Greece is not the only state failing to conform to EU regulations regarding the treatment of illegal migrants. Bulgaria currently locks up its approximately 1,000 asylum seekers a year in facilities designed for 400, often for months. Nikola Kazakov, director of the State Agency for Refugees, says: “The biggest problem in the Bulgarian system of reception is the low capacity of the open reception centres, so we are forced to keep people who applied for refugee status in closed camps … It's against the minimum standards for reception of asylum seekers but that is the capacity of Bulgaria.” This situation is likely to worsen once Bulgaria joins the Schengen zone, as this will most likely lead some of those who would have tried to illegally cross the Greek-Turkish border to attempt this at the Bulgarian border instead.

However, even the most rigorous attempts at enforcing the EU’s borders are unlikely to prevent illegal immigration. The issue thus cannot simply be one of security and enforcement, but also how to ensure the welfare of migrants in a way that promotes social cohesion (the Executive Director of Frontex has admitted that “irregular migration is a complex phenomenon that cannot be regulated by border control alone.”). In many countries there is at least the potential for the authorities to grant at least a ‘status of tolerance’ that allows asylum applicants to legally settle and work. Bulgaria currently has no such legal mechanism and no plans to introduce one. Dragomir Petrov, director of the Migration Directorate within Bulgaria's interior ministry, said, “It may provide a legal status to potentially dangerous persons”.

In consequence, many asylum seekers in Bulgaria and elsewhere are caught in a cycle of application, rejection, appeal and reapplication – during which they cannot work, receive benefits or settle. The resulting poverty, isolation and desperation can lead to an increase in crime in some areas, which can all too easily be exploited by right-wing factions seeking political gain, as has happened in Greece and most recently, Serbia. There is often a lack of initiatives to promote the integration and inclusion of migrants into communities, such as language-learning programs or participation in local events, like a football match organised recently as a welcoming gesture between asylum seekers and locals in the town of Kutina in Croatia.

As more countries join the EU - such as Croatia with its long land border with Bosnia and Serbia - there will be further borders for Frontex to monitor and guard, and a growing number of asylum seekers. It will be interesting to see whether it is able to retain its enforcement priorities without this leading to further allegations of complicity in human rights violations.