by A. F.
First published: November 18, 2010 on http://www.shortstorymadelong.wordpress.com
Five years after its birth Frontexis rising into the heart of European Security Politics. But while praise is arriving from European Member States for its contribution and professional approach in curbing migration influxes in Europe, important questions about the structure, policies and strategies of the organisation remain out of the spotlight…
It is only minutes after 10pm when an insisting spot appears on the radar of Frontex’s rubber speedboat patrolling west of the Greek island of Lesvos, five kilometres from the Turkish coast, against irregular migrants’ intrusions.
The two Finish border guards, part of the multinational force deployed in Lesvos and many other islands along the naval frontier, decide this is a considerable warning. After approaching their target they switch off the engine and lights. One climbs up and starts scanning around with his night goggle while the other explains “it is very difficult for the radar to spot small rubber boats, during the moonless nights you might pass next to them without noticing. They are like tiny stealth boats”.
Frontex is a code name for the ‘Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union’. The agency appeared in 2004 and was operational already in 2005. Since autumn 2009 its crews have been increasingly patrolling the Turkish-Greek naval frontier after migrations influxes into Europe shifted from northern Africa to the Aegean Sea.
The Finish patrol is present here in the frame of an available force Frontex can deploy in order to support Member States in exceptional situations. These corps are composed of national Border Guards having the right to act on the territory of other Member States.
But this time there will be no incident, just a false hint. “Since Frontex established its presence traffic along the sea has been reduced almost 70 percent” says one of the guards who requested anonymity from …. to board their boat. “The facilitators have pushed the traffic north, now they send people to cross through Evros”, the river that marks the north-eastern border between Greece and Turkey.
And Frontex is following them by extending its operations overland. Its personnel has been operation in Evros for many months already but some days ago the agency announced for the first time the deployment of pre-structured rapid intervention packages, established with the Regulation (EC) No 863/2007 of 11 July 2007. The so called Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABIT) will be present in Evros soon, raising the involvement and the numbers of officers of the agency in a European member state in unprecedented levels.
Maintaining a de facto high level of professionalism Frontex co-ordinates sea patrol, reconnaissance flights, and sea shore or overland operations as well as an expert’s network charged with identifying the real country of origin of detained irregular migrants, a process that Frontex has coded as ‘screening’.
Still Evros is a treacherous passage and officially it has cost already the lives of at least 50 people attempting the crossing only during the first six months of 2010. The real number could be remarkably higher. Consequently it has attracted criticism about the Greek and European external border and migration policy, including Frontex’s hands on approach in militarising European borders.
Natasha Strachini, a member of the well known group of ‘Lawyers for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants’ has recently returned from a monitoring trip in Evros. She believes that Frontex’s strategy is to transfer responsibility for refugees handling to third countries bordering the EU. “Border guards in Evros are detaining and returning to Turkey people coming from Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Afghanistan citizens were released until lately but it seems they are now also kept longer, meaning they might soon also start being transferred back”.
Upon arrival of the agency in Greece efforts intensified to revitalise a refoulement protocol initially put in place between Greece and Turkey in 2001, but remaining inactive since then. Since its involvement in South-Eastern Europe Frontex has played a proactive role in promoting bilateral co-operation over the control of migration influxes and returns of arrested irregulars between European frontier countries and their neighbours, most notably Spain-Morocco and Italy-Libya.
But this policy has compromised the rights of many refugees. “If Frontex is present on the field it means they are aware of the irregularities taking place. There is strong proof about illegal refoulements and denial of fundamental human rights both in Greece and Turkey” Strachini said.
People who fail to establish their eligibility for international protection during ‘screening’ proceedings are the ones who become subject to return. But activists of the group ‘Welcome to Europe’ (w2E) involved extensively in fieldwork with migrants throughout the country as well as pro-refugee lawyers maintain serious doubts about the ‘screening’ methods. “It is unknown to everyone who these screeners are and how they conduct interviews. It is people with undisclosed credentials operating under an obscure mandate which in a ten minute conversation determines the lives of people” says anthropologist and W2E member Salinia Stroux.
Still Frontex takes precautions not to formally compromise either the human rights of people subjected to screening or the mandate of its experts there. During IPS visit to Lesvos it has become obvious that the experts ‘suggest’ the country of origin, which is then registered formally by national police authorities. In the presence of …. the then Latvian team leader in Lesvos received a verification phone call by experts and then informed local police about the nationality of people apprehended at sea the night before by a Romanian patrol.
A direct interview with a screener has been denied by the team leader of the mission on the island. Requests for interviews with screeners present in Lesvos during the summer have been denied or ignored repeatedly by British, Danish and Norwegian border guard authorities.
Similarly in every field operation of Frontex a representative of national authorities is present, technically bearing responsibility for proceedings.
Last May Frontex signed a co-operation agreement with the Fundamental Rights Agency to help it “integrate a fundamental rights approach into its activities”. Officers dispatched from national authorities to the pool of human resources of Frontex will be informed on basic human rights issues.
Asked whether this approach reveals an effort to create a buffer zone between Frontex’s capacity to directly impact the migration policy of European Member States and shape the character of operations in the field, without at the same time formally bearing responsibility for the irregularities that occur, Strachini answers, “the border is a wild frontier. If you have experienced that, you know that no mandate can clearly contain all possibilities that something might go wrong and expose an institution exercising executive power there. So generally speaking yes, it seems that Frontex is shaping a panopticon reality. It will be present everywhere, but exposed nowhere”.
On 1st of October Frontex opened its first regional headquarters in Greece, establishing a permanent presence in the country. The offices are situated on the tower of the building of the Greek Coastal guard Piraeus, the biggest port of the country, which architecturally, and ironically, matches the idea of panopticon perfectly.
Questioned about Frontex’s accountability the Finnish crew in Lesvos distinguished clearly between the dimensions of a security operation at sea and the one of international security politics. “What we do here is to compromise facilitators and protect endangered people at sea. This is significant and legitimate. There is a lot of politics involved regarding Frontex, but the sea is not the place one can get these answers” they said.