The headquarters of Frontex, the European Union’s border management agency, is located in a sprawling glass building in one of Warsaw’s main business districts. It is the only EU agency in Poland. Students from the College of Europe in Natolin recently spent a morning with Frontex’s head of media and public relations, Piotr Świtalski, to discuss the agency’s mandate, its work on the ground on the EU’s borders and changes that have been made in the wake of recent controversies regarding the agency’s approach to protecting fundamental rights.
Established in 2004, Frontex is the European Border and Coast Guard Agency and supports EU Member States and Schengen Associated Countries in the management of the EU’s external borders. This is already the EU’s largest agency and continues to grow, with the workforce increasing from 300 people in 2015 to 2,000 in 2022. Frontex’s workforce is expected to further expand to 10,000 by 2027 as the agency grows its standing corps – the EU’s first uniformed law enforcement service. 18 Frontex operations are ongoing, including the Western Balkans, Italy and Moldova, as well as Land Operation Terra which stretches from Norway to Greece. Frontex employs modern forms of border control such as biometrics, drones and AI, and its staff monitors the external border 24/7 from the Warsaw HQ’s nerve centre.
OLAF report and findings
The agency has been the subject of intense criticism and scrutiny for many years, which reached a crescendo with the leaking of the European Anti-Fraud Office’s (OLAF) report into fundamental rights violations in October 2022. A result of a staggering 16-months-long investigation, the report was supported by the testimonies of 20 different witnesses. It revealed serious misconduct within the agency, ranging from internal policies and workplace culture to human rights violations in connection to asylum seekers coming to Europe. Among other allegations, the report claimed that Frontex officials were aware of illegal pushbacks happening in the Aegean Sea but did nothing about it. Although the investigation by OLAF was concluded in February 2022, the report was not meant to be revealed to the public, with only a handful of EU representatives having full access. In addition to the shocking practices revealed in the OLAF report, serious questions around the transparency of the public institution were raised.
In addition, Frontex has the largest budget of any EU agency which is increasing year on year, from around six million euros in 2005 to around 754 million euros in 2022. The OLAF report’s revelations triggered the European Parliament to attempt to hold Frontex accountable by freezing part of its budget in October 2022 and forcing its hand in making key reforms. Their resolutions included strengthening the capacity to report serious incidents at the external borders and improving the monitoring of compliance with fundamental rights.
The report also triggered the resignation of the former Frontex’s Executive Director, Fabrice Leggeri, due to his complicity in violations of fundamental rights. In December 2022, a new Director was appointed, the Dutch military and civilian officer Hans Leijtens, who recently assumed the position.
To right the wrongs of the past and the present
“These were practices of the past,” claims Frontex in its official response to the OLAF report. Frontex faces a daunting task: a drastic reform of the most controversial agency in the EU. After Leggeri’s resignation Frontex has been undergoing major transformations, but it is not an easy task. The agency executives need to oscillate between realizing the core task of protecting the external borders of the EU while preventing the violation of fundamental rights and ensuring sufficient transparency of operations.
The agency seems to be aware of the dire situation. During the Natolin student visit to the Frontex headquarters, Mr Świtalski was frank about the agency trying its best to improve its impact. For example, there are now 46 Fundamental Rights Officers currently employed at Frontex – six more than originally recommended by the European Commission. There is also a Complaints Mechanism (established by Regulation 1624/2016) and a revision of the Serious Incident Reporting mechanism. Mr Świtalski emphasized that all Frontex officers, whether working internally or being deployed on the borders, have the obligation of reporting any suspicions of violation. The agency also promised to address the issues through several remedial measures, such as enabling their Fundamental Rights Officers to access all crucial information connected to serious incidents at the EU’s external borders. They also took up cooperation with the Greek authorities to establish a common action plan and improve the situation on both political and practitioner levels.
Lessons learned? Centering the protection of fundamental rights
In 2022, around 330,000 irregular border crossings were detected at the EU’s external borders. This is the highest number since 2016 and an increase of 64% from the previous year. In this context, Frontex as an organisation has gained more prevalence, both among those that see migration as a threat and from concerned EU citizens and human rights groups who criticise ‘fortress Europe’ and the increasing securitisation of migration. Ultimately, the organisation is funded by EU taxpayers and needs their trust, as well as the trust of EU institutions, member states, partner countries and its own staff if it is to function effectively. The process of reform following the release of the OLAF report has started, and meaningful changes have been put in place, but it is essential to ensure that these lead to a long-term impact. Further, more needs to be done to ensure the organisation is truly accountable and that there is adequate transparency and public scrutiny. This could involve, for example, national governments becoming more involved in the democratic scrutiny of Frontex, as recommended by the rapporteur of the final report by the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group. Ultimately, fundamental rights and respect for human dignity, as well as accountability to the public, need to be taken just as seriously as law enforcement.
Alicja Kępka holds a master’s degree in Conflict Studies from the University of Amsterdam and is currently following “The EU and the World” major at the College of Europe in Natolin. She previously worked as a civil servant at the European and national levels. She is interested in the fields of security, migration and technological advancement.
Caitlin Morgan is currently undertaking a masters in European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin, focusing on the EU’s neighbourhood. She previously studied Politics and International Relations at the University of Bristol before working at HM Treasury in the UK. Her interests include issues of identity, nationalism and the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
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