In June 2023, EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly launched a probe into the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) over the Adriana boat tragedy in which more than 600 people lost their lives off the coast of Greece.

The overcrowded trawler – estimated to have carried more than 750 people bound for Europe – sank; only 104 survivors were rescued and just 82 bodies were recovered. Conflicting accounts by survivors and the Greek coastguard emerged as to how the incident unfolded and whether deaths could have been avoided.

The seven-month probe by O’Reilly’s office found that Frontex is unable to fully uphold EU rights obligations when carrying out sea rescues under current rules. “If Frontex has a duty to help save lives at sea, but the tools for it are lacking, then this is clearly a matter for EU legislators,” O’Reilly said as she presented her report on February 28. 

“Frontex includes ‘coast guard’ in its name but its current mandate and mission clearly fall short of that,” O’Reilly said. She warned that, unless the rules changed, it is likely “there will be a repeat of the Adriana tragedy”, one of the worst to happen in European waters. 

The ombudsman’s office has no power to enforce recommendations from its inquiries, only to flag areas of concern.

Highest death toll in 2023: Mediterranean Sea still the most lethal route for migrants

According to a statement by the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), 2023 has been the deadliest year for migrants since the IOM established their open-access database on migrant deaths and disappearances, the Missing Migrants Project, in 2014.

At least 8,565 people died on migration routes worldwide in 2023, making it the year with the highest death toll since records began a decade ago, the United Nations said on March 6. Slightly more than half of the total migrant deaths in 2023 came as a result of drowning. The Mediterranean Sea continues to be the most lethal route for migrants with at least 3,129 deaths and disappearances registered last year.  

What’s Frontex’ job –  searching yes, rescuing no?

Frontex, founded in 2004 and head-quartered in Warsaw, has long been accused of human rights violations, covering up or turning a blind eye to illegal pushbacks. In 2022, the then-director of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, resigned after serious accusations were made against him and his staff over the treatment of migrants trying to reach Europe.

“There is obvious tension between Frontex’s fundamental rights obligations and its duty to support member states in border management control,” O’Reilly said.

The European Commission said it had “taken note” of the report. “We will duly assess it and respond to it thoroughly,” said spokeswoman Anitta Hipper. She noted that, “when it comes to search and rescue, this is a matter of competence for the member states” – meaning that Frontex operates only as a support agency to national authorities in the EU countries where it operates.

The current executive director of Frontex, Hans Leijtens, reminded O’Reilly that Frontex was not the European Union’s agency for search and rescue operations for migrants at sea, but the European security guard agency for borders and coasts.

“We are not the European Search and Rescue Agency. We are the European Border and Coast Guard Agency,” Leijtens declared, acknowledging that the “difficult” term in the name of the agency is “coast guard” since, as he explained, “in some countries” the coast guard is responsible for protecting borders, but also for carrying out search operations and rescue at sea.

“That is not our case,” he commented, saying that Frontex’ mandate mentions search and rescue operations, but added that the agency does not have rescue among its tasks, although it does have search.

“Our agency strictly adheres to its mandate, which does not include the coordination of rescue efforts – a responsibility that rests with national rescue coordination centres,” Frontex said in a statement. “In every instance where our assets detect potential distress situations, we promptly alert the relevant authorities.”

According to Frontex, it will run 19 joint operations with 300 deployment locations in total in 2024. 

Concerns about Frontex’ human rights track record

Human rights organisations are expressing their worries regarding treatment of refugees and migrants, citing a lack of safe migration routes as well as problems faced in on-the-ground cooperation.

At an event in Madrid on March 11, general director of the non-governmental organisation Spanish Commission for Refugees (CEAR), Estrella Galán, expressed her concern about the “lack of proposals for legal and safe routes for migrants” in the European pact.

European Commissioner for the Interior, Ylva Johansson, attending the same event, replied that the management of legal migration is largely a “national competence”, but she believed that the EU would be “stronger” if it designed a community approach to the matter. She further said that “a major reform of Frontex” is unnecessary and she expressed being “quite satisfied” with its operation. 

At last week’s Justice and Home Affairs Council where ministers exchanged views on evaluation of Frontex’ regulation, Johannson said “we should not change the regulation, but we need to focus on the implementation”.

A report by Belgian human rights group 11.11.11, the “coalition for international solidarity” consisting of 60 NGOs and movements, found that European countries turned away more migrants at their external borders in 2023 than the year before. According to figures from the organisation, 340,000 people were turned away last year without the chance to apply for asylum – the real numbers are possibly higher.

According to 11.11.11, Frontex is in a weak position compared to member states that do not adhere to correct asylum policies. “In Bulgaria, for example, we see Frontex staff being asked to leave so they cannot document. The role of monitoring and surveillance is not sufficiently recognised by member states, but also not widely enough recognised by Frontex itself. Frontex is needed, but needs to organise itself differently,” 11.11.11 director Els Hertogen told Flemish broadcaster VRT.

Mehrere Migranten sitzen in einem Boot im Mittelmeer während Rettungskräfte versuchen ihnen zu helfen. 60 Migranten wurden am Nachmittag von der Besatzung des Schiffes der Nichtregierungsorganisationen (NGO) Open Arms gerettet.
Several people sit in a boat in the Mediterranean while rescue workers try to help them. The Mediterranean continues to be the most lethal migration route, according to the International Organization for Migration. Photo: Antonio Sempere/EUROPA PRESS/dpa

Deals with EU accession candidates, externalising border management: Fortress Europe”?

EU rules approved in December aim to share hosting responsibilities across the 27-country bloc – and to speed up deportations of irregular migrants deemed ineligible to stay. Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch slammed the changes as a further shift towards “Fortress Europe”.

In Bulgaria, for example, Frontex deployment will soon triple. From March 20, there will be a further 500 to 600 Frontex officers, explained agency director Hans Leijtens on February 29 at the Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint on Bulgaria’s border with Turkey.  

Leijtens was joined by the country’s Interior Minister Kalin Stoyanov, who said they discussed, among other things, the possibilities for providing a larger number of Frontex officers to be deployed at the Bulgarian-Turkish and Bulgarian-Serbian borders.

Since 2017, Bulgaria has been protecting the EU’s external border with Turkey with a 234-kilometre metal fence financed by Brussels, featuring barbed wire and thermal imaging cameras. The country is to join the border-free Schengen area from the end of March, though only its air and sea borders are included as a decision is still pending on lifting checks at land borders.

All countries on the Western Balkan migration route [Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia] were recording an increased number of illegal crossings of the border, as the route “is exceptionally active”, according to Slovenian Interior Minister Boštjan Poklukar

The increase was the reason for the Slovenian government’s plan to establish two asylum centres at two former border crossings with Croatia for up to three years, he noted on the sidelines of the Justice and Home Affairs Council in early March in Brussels.

Besides ramping up Frontex deployment in member states, border management is also externalised through collaboration with non-EU member states. Frontex has agreements with accession candidates Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Moldova and North Macedonia. 

In October 2022, North Macedonia and the EU signed an agreement on operational cooperation in border management with Frontex. In April 2023, a joint operation at the country’s southern border with Greece was launched. More than 100 European border guards support local authorities with border surveillance and checks, including patrolling, checking documents and gathering information on cross-border crime.

In November 2023, Albania and Italy struck a deal for two migrant reception centres on Albanian territory with an ability to process up to 36,000 migrants per year. The Italian-run centres are intended to process the asylum claims of migrants rescued by Italian authorities at sea.

The first is a centre for the identification of migrants inland that will hold “a maximum of 3,000 persons”, and a smaller centre will be built at the port of Shëngjin, to allow Italian ships arriving with migrants on board to dock.

Rome’s deal with Tirana was a model of thinking outside the box to solve migration issues, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a letter to the EU member states ahead of the EU summit last December.

However, the agreement raised concerns, among others, by the Council of Europe. “The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Italy and Albania on disembarkation and the processing of asylum applications, concluded last week, raises several human rights concerns and adds to a worrying European trend towards the externalisation of asylum responsibilities,” said Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.

Besides striking a deal with Italy, Albania in January also extended an agreement with the EU for Frontex operations from 2018. The agreement proposed by the EU provides that the Frontex officers exercise executive powers in the field of illegal migration and border crimes. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina started negotiations with Frontex on February 12, as one of the conditions set by the European Union for the opening of accession talks in March.

But not only accession candidates are signing deals with Frontex: Former EU member Britain last week signed a deal with Frontex to crack down on the irregular arrival of migrants, as London tries to stop small boats with asylum-seekers crossing the Channel from France.

This article is published weekly. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.