NGOs, EU and international agencies sound the alarm over Frontex's respect for fundamental rights
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The Frontex Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights has expressed "serious concerns about the effectiveness of Frontex's serious incident reporting mechanism," saying that it should be revised and that the border agency must "take additional measures to set up an effective system to monitor respect for fundamental rights in the context of its activities."
The inadequacy of the serious incident reporting (SIR) mechanism is raised in the latest annual report of the Consultative Forum (pdf), which is made up of nine civil society organisations, two EU agencies and four UN agencies and other intergovernmental bodies. It was established in October 2012 to provide independent advice to the agency on fundamental rights.
Its report notes that during 2018, Frontex "only received 3 serious incident reports for alleged violations of fundamental rights and 10 complaints," described by as an "almost negligible number" given that the agency has some 1,500 officers deployed at the external borders of the EU.
Fundamental rights violations
The Consultative Forum highlights "fundamental rights violations in areas where the Agency is operational, including the Hungarian-Serbian and the Greek-Turkish land borders."
For example, interviews by Human Rights Watch with asylum seekers in Greece and Turkey found that:
"Greek law enforcement officers at the land border with Turkey in the northeastern Evros region routinely summarily return asylum seekers and migrants The officers in some cases use violence and often confiscate and destroy the migrants' belongings."
This is simply the latest in a long line of reports and investigations documenting mistreatment and abuse at the Greek-Turkish border, where The Christian Science Monitor also heard allegations that Frontex was directly involved in pushback operations.
The Consultative Forum's report also points to numerous instances of collective expulsion from Croatia to Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina; ill-treatment at the Bulgarian-Turkish border; and what the Hungarian Helsinki Committee refers to as "systemic violations of asylum-seekers' human rights in Hungary."
Repeat: suspend activities at Hungary-Serbia border
In its report, the Consultative Forum repeats a recommendation it has made previously: until fundamental rights can be guaranteed, the Executive Director should use the powers available under the 2016 Frontex Regulation to "suspend operational activities" at the Hungarian-Serbian border.
The agency offers little obvious information about its activities at that border on its website, merely stating that it "deploys specialised officers and border surveillance vehicles and other equipment" in both Hungary and Croatia, where its officers "assist the national authorities in the detection of forged documents, stolen cars, illegal drugs and weapons."
The December 2018 report by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee cited above doesn't mention Frontex, but details serious malpractice by the Hungarian state: immediate pushbacks that negate the right to seek asylum; a lack of procedural safeguards for those that do manage to claim asylum; and a lack of state support to integrate and assist those that receive protection.
Lack of staff "seriously undermining" fundamental rights obligations
The Consultative Forum's report also repeats a longstanding complaint that the inadequate provision of staff to the agency's Fundamental Rights Officer is "seriously undermining the fulfilment" of their mandate "and, more generally Frontex's capacity to fulfil its fundamental rights obligations".
According to the report, while there were 58 posts for administrators foreseen in the agency's recruitment plan for 2018, not a single one was allocated to the Fundamental Rights Officer.
Furthermore, "during the year, only three Senior Assistants joined the Fundamental Rights Office," and its work "continues to be compromised in areas such as monitoring of operations, handling of complaints, provision of advice on training, risk analysis, third country cooperation and return activities" - in short, those areas of the agency's work raising the most high-profile fundamental rights concerns.
Independence of Fundamental Rights Office at risk
The report also warns that the independence of the Fundamental Rights Office is at risk.
The problem centres on the appointment of an Advisor in the Executive Director's Cabinet as interim replacement for the Fundamental Rights Officer, who in the second half of 2018 "took an extended period of sick leave".
The Consultative Forum has "noted that the appointment of a member of the Executive Director's cabinet as Fundamental Rights Officer ad interim raises issues under the EBCG [Frontex] Regulation."
In particular, the "previous and future reporting expectations on the incumbent in relation to the Executive Director" make it:
"difficult to ensure that the Fundamental Rights Officer ad interim and the Fundamental Rights Officer's team maintain their independence in the performance of their duties and avoid potential conflicts of interest."
A long list of issues
The report also examines a number of other issues concerning fundamental rights and the agency's work, including the ongoing amendments to its governing legislation; the treatment of stateless persons in Frontex operations; "gender mainstreaming at Frontex"; and the need for a revision of the Fundamental Rights Strategy, amongst other things.
Full report: Frontex Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights: Sixth annual report (pdf)
Frontex condemned by its own fundamental rights body for failing to live up to obligations (Statewatch News Online, 21 May 2018)
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