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Frontex gets ready to deploy to the Balkans
9.5.19
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The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, is preparing to deploy officers to Albania at the end of May for an operation at the Greek-Albanian border, despite a drop in the number of illegal border-crossings detected by the agency last year.

An operational plan is in the works and a recently-published tender shows that the agency hopes to deploy five "full furnished mobile offices" to the country for one year. Frontex also plans to deploy similar offices for operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia.

Going to Albania

A Status Agreement between the EU and Albania allowing the agency to act within the country entered into force on 1 May. It is the first of five agreements negotiated over the last two years between the EU and states in the region (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) to come into force.

According to an "indicative plan" published by Frontex (Ted, link), the agency intends to acquire five "full furnished mobile offices" to be deployed in Albania for one year, from 1 June onwards.

Before that can happen, an operational plan has to be drawn up and agreed by both parties. That plan is currently in preparation, a Frontex press officer told Statewatch. The intention (European Commission, link) is to deploy officials to the Albanian border with Greece at the end of May.

According to the EU-Albania Status Agreement, a "joint operation" is "an action aimed at tackling illegal immigration or cross-border crime or aimed at providing increased technical and operational assistance."

The operation must take place on Albanian territory but at a border with an EU Member State - hence the deployment at the border with Greece, the only EU Member state with which Albania shares a land frontier.

"Surveillance and everything that goes with that"

The aim of the joint operation will be "surveillance and everything that goes with that", in the words of a Frontex spokesperson, including the registration, identification and interviewing of migrants and the deployment of interpreters. However, the power to approve or deny entry at border crossings "will remain only with national authorities."

The agency did not respond to questions on whether the planned joint operation was instigated at the request of the Albanian authorities or by Frontex itself.

The timespan of the agreement is unconfirmed, though it cannot exceed one year, given Frontex's budgetary terms. However, agreements can be extended indefinitely and it is only after an operation has been completed that the operational plan will become partially available to the public.

Mobile offices across the Balkans

Along with Albania, the agency's recent tender indicates a plan to deploy one office in three of the other four countries with which the EU has signed agreements - Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia - with a €250,000 total annual cost expected for deployment across the four states.

However, costs for two years (€500,000) are also noted in the tender documents, suggesting that a longer deployment is also under consideration.

The deployment of mobile offices is nothing new for Frontex - in 2018 there were two deployed in Bulgaria (down from a peak of four in 2017), three in Greece (13 in 2016), 14 in Italy (15 in 2017) and three in Spain - but this is the first time that such offices will be deployed outside of the EU.

One of the procurement documents states that Frontex "is foreseeing the growth of at least 45% of the number of the deployed containers for the future years."

Decrease in crossings

Despite the apparent urgency to deploy these new offices, the number of people making irregular border crossings in the region appears to have fallen dramatically.

Frontex's Risk Analysis for 2019 shows that the number of detections of illegal border crossings on the 'Western Balkan Route' fell by more than half, from 12,179 in 2017 to 5,869 in 2018.

On the "circular route" from Albania to Greece, the figures in the report show that detections of illegal border-crossings dropped by almost a third, from 6,396 in 2017 to 4,550 in 2018.

Violence at the borders

Pushbacks, collective expulsions and violence against migrants have been reported frequently (Amnesty, link) along the 'Western Balkan route'.

In November reports emerged that people stuck at or pushed back from the border of Croatia with Bosnia and Herzegovina have been denied access to asylum procedures (Euronews, link). Frontex did not respond to the question of whether these reports would prevent the implementation of a future operation launched by the agency in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The group Border Violence Monitoring (link) has documented cases of the violent mistreatment of migrants by state officials along the Western Balkan route, and has highlighted two cases "of Frontex officers being potentially involved in illegal push-backs" from Hungary to Serbia.

The potential involvement of officials deployed by Frontex arises, said the group, because witnesses recounted the presence of German officials during two separate (links) violent incidents at the Hungarian border where groups of men were punched, kicked, beaten with truncheons and had dogs set upon them by masked border guards.

According to Border Violence Monitoring, Frontex said in response to their enquiries that "there was one Serious Incident Report concerning Hungary reported in 2017 to Frontex Fundamental Rights Officer and this case's status is open." It is unknown what that case concerns.

Speaking to Statewatch, a Frontex spokesperson confirmed that they are aware of allegations of pushbacks and violence by national border guards at the border between Serbia and Hungary but denied that any allegations concern officials deployed by the agency.

Agreements

The EU has concluded agreements which make it possible for Frontex to undertake joint operations and "rapid border interventions" with Montenegro (February 2019), Bosnia and Herzegovina (January 2019), Serbia (September 2018), Macedonia and Albania (both in July 2018).

The agreements follow the same template but differ on several points, particularly regarding fundamental rights responsibilities.

All the agreements contain a common article referring to the full respect of team members for fundamental rights and freedoms, adding that team members "shall not arbitrarily discriminate against persons on any grounds including sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age, sexual orientation…"

The agreements signed with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia add "or gender identity" to this list (as included in the template agreement), but during negotiations with Serbia this was removed from the list of protected characteristics.

Another exception lies in the agreement with Bosnia and Herzegovina, which allows operational plans to authorise Frontex teams to act without the presence or instruction of national border guards "in exceptional circumstances".

The status agreements were endorsed by MEPs (pdf) as "crucial to ensure transparency, public scrutiny and democratic oversight" on Frontex's cooperation with non-EU states, as compared to standard working arrangements agreed solely between the agency and a non-EU country.

Further reading

NGOs, EU and international agencies sound the alarm over Frontex's respect for fundamental rights (5 March 2019)

Frontex in the Balkans: Serbian government rejects EU's criminal immunity proposals (5 July 2017)

Deploying armed Frontex teams on the 'Balkan Route': agreements with Serbia and Macedonia on the way (1 May 2017)

Documentation

Status agreements

Status Agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Albania on actions carried out by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency in the Republic of Albania

Status Agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Serbia on actions carried out by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency in the Republic of Serbia

Status Agreement between the European Union and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on actions carried out by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

Status Agreement between the European Union and Bosnia and Herzegovina on actions carried out by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Status Agreement between the European Union and Bosnia and Herzegovina on actions carried out by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency in Montenegro

Tender documents

Framework Contract for the Provision of Mobile office containers and associated services in Albania, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Republic of North Macedonia: Tender Specifications (pdf)

Further documentation is available on the Ted website (link).

European Parliament recommendation

Recommendation on the draft Council decision on the conclusion of the Status Agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Albania on actions carried out by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency in the Republic of Albania (12 December 2018, A8-0463/2018, pdf). Rapporteur: Bodil Valero

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