Arms deals, paramilitary border police, and obfuscated accountability. The recent developments surrounding the EU border guard agency Frontex are worrying, to say the least. Therefore, on December 18, the Abolish Frontex network will campaign internationally against the militarization of European border security.
Franka Kraai (Stop the War on Migrants)
Mark Akkerman (Stop Wapenhandel)A Dutch version of this article was previously published on www.doorbraak.eu
Standing border guard corps
On 13 November 2019, the European Parliament voted in favor of a major expansion of Frontex, the EU’s border guard agency. This expansion is part of a process started during the ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015 and is, as Frontex itself likes to proclaim, unprecedented in the history of the EU. It’s unprecedented because previously Frontex had a largely coordinating and intermediary function within the European border security system. Frontex essentially ‘borrowed’ its personnel and equipment from the EU member states, a kind of secondment of national border guards. However, this was seen as inefficient and inadequate by both the European Commission and Frontex itself, mainly because EU Member States didn’t commit as much as expected and then subsequently also failed to deliver. This led to the birth of the new mandate. Frontex had to become more independent and “Regulation (EU) 2019/1986” would achieve that.
With “Regulation (EU) 2019/1986”, and a corresponding significant expansion of the budget, the European Commission gives Frontex the task of forming a large-scale standing corps. By 2027, this border police force should consist of ten thousand employees, including three thousand directly in Frontex employment. With this own standing corps, Frontex can start up its own operations more quickly and, also on a smaller scale, provide personnel support to border security authorities in EU Member States and – if an agreement has been reached – to countries beyond.
In addition, the standing corps is armed. This is good news for the European arms industry, which constantly lobbies for and earns good money from increasing border security. At the end of October, Austria’s Glock signed a €3.72 million deal with Frontex to supply 2,500 semi-automatic 9mm pistols over a four-year period. Frontex awarded a similar contract to the Polish companies Mildat and Parasnake Arkadiusz Szewczyk for the supply of 3.6 million rounds of ammunition. These companies will receive 1.14 million euros. Frontex’s eagerness to arm itself is alarming and contributes to further militarization of Europe’s borders. On top of that, Frontex former director Gil Arias Fernández claims in the British newspaper The Guardian that Frontex’s tasks do not require weapons at all. In fact, he calls them a problem rather than an aid.
Meanwhile, officer recruitment and training for the standing corps is in full swing, as described below. Already, the first batches of officers have completed training and have been sent to Italy, Greece, Spain, the Western Balkans, Latvia and Lithuania, and latest to the French coast to help with border security. As a result, the first EU-wide operational, uniformed, and armed police force has become active. The standing corps should also contribute to Frontex’s growing role in carrying out joint deportations from several EU countries.
Recruitment and training
In the past, Frontex received fully trained and qualified border guards. Now that they’re allowed to form their own corps, this is no longer the case. To remedy this, Frontex wants to engage external training institutions. For example, the agency recently launched a tender procedure for training specialists and institutions. These will have to train roughly 200 Frontex border guards in things like physical education, shooting, and tactical driving. Furthermore, a so-called training infrastructure must be set up, including accommodation and full board. The budget for this training program is 8 million euros, the possibility to submit offers is still ongoing.
This extra training capacity comes on top of the existing network, the Frontex Partnership Academies. In addition to general training for border control, these institutions also provide specific training for Frontex. The Dutch Border Security Training Centre, located at the Queen Maxima barracks of the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee at Schiphol and the ID Center in Eindhoven are part of this network.
In all training, however, there is a distinct lack of human rights education for Frontex’s future border guards. This was also made clear by the former director in the interview with The Guardian. That is a dangerous oversight, to put it mildly, given that these border guards will work in the most harrowing situations with the most vulnerable people. Some human rights knowledge would not be out of place but is evidently not a priority for Frontex. This is not surprising, given Frontex’s contribution to pushbacks, violence, and other human rights violations against refugees at Europe’s external borders.
The foregoing fact is also supported by the former director’s warning that there are no safety nets to prevent the infiltration of the far-right within Frontex’s flanks. However, there are plenty of indications that extreme right-wing armed militias, whether or not in cooperation with secret police units, are patrolling the external borders of the EU. It is therefore of great importance to closely monitor Frontex and its developments.
Who is responsible?
The alarming issues surrounding Frontex raise the question of how responsibility and accountability of the standing corps are regulated. This turns out to be extremely vague and inadequate. While Frontex strives for maximum legal immunity for its staff, the political control by the European Parliament falls short.
The far-reaching mandate that Frontex has received from the EU, laid down in “Regulation (EU) 2019/1986”, contains a single article on responsibility. The singular sentence states that Frontex must be accountable to the European Parliament and the European Council, but in practice, it appears that this responsibility is difficult to interpret. For example, Frontex claims that their border guards work under the command of the national authorities of the country in which they operate.
When illegal pushbacks involving Frontex were identified in Greece in October 2020, this led to an investigation by the European Parliament. Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri repeatedly pointed the finger at national authorities, in this case Greece and Turkey, as the culprit regarding any pushbacks. He claimed that in the so-called Joint Operations Command, the member state is in charge and that Frontex is not to blame. In addition, he also denied any insinuation of illegal pushbacks.
This session was exemplary of Frontex’s attitude towards outside criticism. Frontex conducts internal investigations and subsequently finds no defects. More shockingly, though, is that Frontex is shielded by exactly those institutions that are supposed to exercise political control. Following the inquiry, the European Parliament issued a report that, with the exception of some strong criticism from Leggeri, actually followed Frontex’s line and kept the agency completely out of trouble. In this way, Frontex, and also national border guards, are not hindered by increasingly extreme methods to keep or force refugees out of the EU. In addition to the violence at the borders, the recent pushbacks at the border between Poland and Belarus being a new low, this policy contributes to refugees being forced into increasingly dangerous routes or stranded in inhumane situations in countries around Europe.
In the meantime, refugees seeking safety in the EU will continue to come, displaced by unsafe and unlivable conditions, caused in part by European policies and actions – unfair trade, land grabbing, arms exports, military interventions, contributions to climate change.
International Abolish Frontex Day of Action
For many groups within and outside of Europe, it has been enough. They insist, not on reforming or improving Frontex, but on tearing down what makes Frontex possible: EU policies and the border security industry. They work together in the Abolish Frontex network. The network’s nine demands range from abolishing Frontex and regularizing migrants to stopping the EU’s contribution to the displacement of people.
On December 18, International Migrants Day, a new day of action against Frontex will take place. Action will then be taken against Frontex and affiliated organizations in several places in and outside Europe.