Securitised Seas: Frontex Complicit In Rights Abuses

Frontex, the European Border and Coastguard Agency, is under pressure. Research by investigative journalism outlets like Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, and SeaWatch has found evidence of numerous rights abuses on Europe’s seas; coastguard ships engaging in illegal pushbacks, firing live ammunition at migrant dinghies, and ‘deporting’ migrants by forcing them into window and rudderless life rafts before floating them out to sea.

The Frontex Scrutiny Working Group (FSWG) investigated these claims in a recent report, yet their findings are proving controversial. While the report said Frontex is aware of and complicit in abuses committed by national border staff – those Frontex works in direct liaison with are attempting to reinterpret the findings in their favour.

Speaking on Twitter, Frontex “welcomes the report” which supposedly “reaffirms there is no evidence of the agency’s involvement in any violation of human rights.” However,  this is untrue. The report may have stated that Frontex vessels were not directly involved, but it did find “evidence in support of allegations of human rights violations” by partners “with which it [Frontex] had a direct operation.” Frontex, Europe’s primary maritime border agency, is clearly responsible for the abuses occurring under its watch.

Indeed, a crucial element of Frontex’s role is to provide aerial reconnaissance to national coastguards, both through manned aircraft and with the €100m worth of drones recently purchased from the Israeli military. This offers Frontex a remarkable deal of aerial vision and with that a remarkable degree of responsibility to fulfill its mandate of guaranteeing “free, safe and secure EU borders.” It is not enough to simply shift the blame onto the increasingly hostile nation-states at Europe’s borders, given the central role that Frontex intelligence plays in their operations.

An uncompromising Frontex should concern the international community. Yet, the FSWG report prescribes only greater vigilance on behalf of Frontex, rather than addressing the root issue of a militarised and increasingly violent international border regime with Frontex at its core. This comes at an astronomical cost to EU taxpayers, money that could easily be spent on securing safe and legal migration passages. Frontex holds an annual budget of approximately €900m and has recently announced their plans to recruit an additional 10,000 border and coastal guards – some of whom they intend to arm.

While the FSGW report is welcome, further work is required to evaluate Frontex as a whole. Recurrent scandals should not simply allow Frontex to promise the improvement of a systematically violent border regime, or to deny responsibility altogether. Rather, these findings should encourage critical thinking on what migration policies ought to consist of. If on reflection, we no longer desire an expensive, cruel, and seemingly unaccountable border regime, then things have got to change.