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Frontex condemned by its own fundamental rights body for failing to live up to obligations
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Frontex, the EU's border agency, has been heavily criticised for failing to provide adequate staff and resources to its own Fundamental Rights Office, a problem that "seriously hinders the Agency's ability to deliver on its fundamental rights obligations."
The criticisms come in a report from the Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights, an independent advisory body made up of experts from other EU agencies, international organisations and NGOs.
As well as noting an ongoing "reluctance" to provide the Fundamental Rights Office with "sufficiently qualified staff," the Consultative Forum report raises concerns over Frontex's role at the Serbian-Hungarian border, a failure to update and effectively implement codes of conduct and a complaints mechanism, and the lack of independent monitoring of forced return operations coordinated by the agency.
See: Frontex Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights - Fifth Annual Report (pdf)
Fundamental rights sidelined
While the Consultative Forum exists to provide "independent advice" to Frontex's executive director and management board and is staffed voluntarily, the Fundamental Rights Officer is a Frontex official tasked with "contributing to the Agency's fundamental rights strategy monitoring its compliance with fundamental rights and promoting its respect of fundamental rights."
The Officer has to oversee a large organisation - Frontex foresaw (pdf) having 352 staff at the end of 2017, and 418 by the end of this year - yet "lacks the minimum capacity to carry outs its role," according to the Consultative Forum, with just four staff working alongside the officer and one member of secretarial staff.
The report states that "the lack of adequate staffing seriously hinders the Agency's ability to deliver on its fundamental rights obligations including on key areas such as Frontex operational activities, the newly established complaints mechanism or the protection of children."
The Consultative Forum has come up against its own problems in attempting to carry out its tasks. According to Article 70(5) of the Frontex Regulation adopted in 2016, "the consultative forum shall have effective access to all information concerning the respect for fundamental rights."
Yet the report complains that the Forum "continues to face serious and further limitations" on access to information, "particularly in relation to relevant operational reference and guiding documents." Despite "repeatedly raising this concern with Frontex management," it is yet to receive a "final response or constructive proposal."
Given that Frontex operational documents have included instructions for border guards to target "migrants from minority ethnic groups, and individuals who may have been isolated or mistreated during their journey," the need for access to such information by fundamental rights monitoring bodies is clear.
In this regard, the Consultative Forum highlights that "external oversight" - for example by the European and national parliaments and civil society groups - "remains of particular importance".
The Hungarian-Serbian border
In November 2016 the Consultative Forum recommended that Frontex teams be withdrawn from the Hungarian-Serbian border due to fundamental rights concerns, but the Executive Director rebuffed the proposal, arguing that Frontex's presence can "minimise potential risks related to the use of force" and can assist in documenting "circumstances on the ground."
Indeed, the positive effect of Frontex presence on national border guards has been noted elsewhere - following a trip to the Bulgarian-Turkish border, French MEP Marie-Christine Vergiat reported NGOs as saying that "whenever a Frontex officer was involved in a [Bulgarian border guard] patrolling group, there were no abuses."
However, given the European Commission's decision to launch an infringement procedure against Hungary for new asylum legislation that includes automatic detention, limitations on legal assistance and measures for automatic expulsion, the Forum reasserted its recommendation.
The agency has apparently "significantly reduced the number of deployed officers and assets in Hungary," according to the report, but a number remain in place and the Consultative Forum warns that the developments in Hungarian law and practice "have further exacerbated the risks of Frontex being involved in serious fundamental rights violations."
Complaints mechanism and codes of conduct
The need for Frontex to establish a complaints mechanism so that individuals can seek redress for potential fundamental rights violations that they may have suffered during operations coordinated by the agency is a long-standing issue, and the 2016 Regulation introduced such a mechanism (in Article 72), to be overseen by the agency in cooperation with the Fundamental Rights Officer.
There is now, however, a need to implement this mechanism and the Consultative Forum's report notes that:
"The rules should, among other points, provide further details on the respective roles of the different actors involved in the procedure, specify the timeframe for the processing of complaints, and provide for the possibility of anonymous complaints. In this context the Consultative Forum reiterates its calls for the allocation of more technical staff and means to the Fundamental Rights Officer."
The Forum also highlights the agency's decision to discard its recommendations on the 'Code of Conduct for all persons participating in Frontex activities', which would have seen the inclusion of "specific references to omissions or failures to act or to the prohibition to obey or obligation not to comply with and report instructions that are illicit or against international, EU or national legislation, the Code of Conduct or the legal framework of the activity."
The agency is also redrafting its 'Code of Conduct for Return Operations and Return Interventions', which is expected to be adopted this year. The Forum notes that it is "essential to strengthen the wording relating to the legal framework and, in particular, fundamental rights obligations such as the right to an effective remedy," and makes a number of specific proposals.
Monitoring of forced return operations
In 2017 the agency coordinated and/or co-financed 341 forced return operations - 150 national return operations (involving just one Member State), 153 joint return operations (involving one or more Member State) and 38 collecting return operations, in which the authorities of non-EU states are involved in the "collection" of their own nationals.
Of these 341 operations, a human rights monitor accompanied 188 of them, just 41% of the total, but nevertheless an increase on the previous year. However, the report indicates that a particularly low number of national return operations - 20 of 150 - were monitored.
The report also notes 50 "readmission" operations from Greece to Turkey conducted by Frontex, in the framework of the EU-Turkey deal. Only 22 of these were monitored. The Forum recommends treating readmission operations in the same way as return operations, "in order to make use of the already existing standards for return operations (code, monitoring, escorts training, etc.)."
The list goes on
Other problems for the Consultative Forum in 2017 include a failure to prioritise the revision of Frontex's fundamental rights strategy (now foreseen for adoption sometime this year), the need to "mainstream" gender perspectives and issues into Frontex activities, and some issues with the terminology deployed in the Africa-Frontex Intelligence Community reports, such as references to "illegal" migrants and referring to operations by the Libyan Coast Guard as "rescues".
Elsewhere, the Consultative Forum notes good progress made on updating measures to try to ensure the protection of children and migration and the identification of minors at risk of abuse. Nevertheless, for an agency whose "mission" is "to promote, coordinate and develop European border management in line with the EU fundamental rights charter," it seems that the former is being given priority over the latter.
See: Frontex Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights - Fifth Annual Report (pdf)
After joint EU agency tests on maritime surveillance drones, Frontex moves on to aerostats (January 2018)
Frontex in the Balkans: Serbian government rejects EU's criminal immunity proposals (July 2017)
Frontex: minutes of all Management Board meetings, May 2014-February 2017 (May 2017)
Press release: EU border agency targeted "isolated or mistreated" individuals for questioning (February 2017)
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