Frontex fact-finding mission: no pushbacks, but we expected better – Metsola

Fact-finding mission spearheaded by MEP Roberta Metsola finds Frontex did not engage in controversial pushbacks of irregular migrants from the EU’s borders but fell short of the mark in several respects when it comes to the guaranteeing of fundamental rights

A four-month fact-finding mission by the Frontex Scrutiny Group chaired by Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola did not find conclusive evidence on the involvement of the Agency performing pushbacks or collective expulsions of irregular migrants at sea.

But, as Metsola informed the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee on Thursday, the mission found that the agency should have addressed and followed up on fundamental rights violation concerns that had come to its attention.

“Here,” Metsola said, “we expected better.  We also expected the Frontex management board in particular to have played a more proactive role in acknowledging the serious risks of fundamental rights violations.

“We would have also hoped that the executive director of Frontex would have coordinated the response to the allegations being made [that Frontex had been involved in pushbacks] in a more coherent fashion, and consulted with the in-house experts on fundamental rights wherever necessary.”

Frontex had had its mandate renewed, but certain aspects of its implementation have been found to have been severely lacking.

Along these lines, Metsola also had harsh words over the abject failure to have supplied the agency with the cohort of fundamental rights officers that had been committed.

As Metsola explained to the committee, “I maintain Parliament’s commitment to ensure that at least 40 fundamental rights officers were to have been recruited by December 2020, with their roles to be the agency’s eyes and ears on the ground.

“The Frontex Scrutiny Group regrets that this has not happened for various reasons.”

The new mandate, she said, called for “an enlarged role of the fundamental rights officer, for at least 40 fundamental rights monitors to be recruited by last December, and for fundamental rights to be at the heart of the agency’s operations.

“This did not happen.”

She explained how the Frontex Scrutiny Group, in the report, which was still to be made public, welcomed the fact that the Agency had developed internal procedures and rules to better comply with the new regulations.

‘Fundamental rights officers must be deployed as soon as possible’

But, she stressed in no uncertain terms, “I must emphasise that the recruitment of the fundamental rights officers must be concluded as quickly and as soon as possible and that the officers have to be deployed and able to work within the expectations of that mandate. This is clearly noted in the Group’s conclusions and recommendations.”

She remarked how the report’s conclusions are also clear on the need for due diligence to be undertaken on the safeguarding of fundamental rights when it comes to Frontex joint operations carried out with member states.

“The regulation provides for the suspension of a mission [when a member state is not abiding by the rules], but it is clear to us that the agency could benefit from clear, intermediate steps in this regard.”

The Group, its report, also underscores the responsibility of Frontex’s management board and that of member states to step up their involvement and actions to ensure that Frontex’s support of border surveillance should go hand-in-hand with adequately preventing and combating fundamental rights violations.”

She called on member states in particular to support the agency in implementing the mandate, “particularly in securing the needed support of staff and material.

Human beings as pawns on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border

“We have all seen what is happening on the EU’s Lithuanian-Belarusian external border, with another dictator on our doorstep using vulnerable human beings as pawns.”

Along such lines, Metsola said that, by now, Frontex should be in a strong position to assist in every way possible in such situations with sufficient resources and personnel. This, she said, is also of crucial importance when Frontex is drawing up operational plans for joint operations with member states under pressure.

“A lot more needs to be done to integrate human rights considerations from the very beginning of planning including by making full use of the fundamental rights officers.

“Moreover, if and where a serious incident report is filed that could contain implications for fundamental rights, these need to be tackled in a timely manner by using the agency’s new standing operational procedure, which the Group welcomes.”

The Group also endorsed the EU Ombudsman’s recommendations on the effectiveness and accessibility of the complaints mechanism that there is in place, while also noting that the Ombudsman has decided not to pursue her inquiry in view of the number of issues currently remaining to be resolved.

The Group welcomed the Frontex management board’s initiative to include a transparent reporting mechanism in every operational plan and for there to be more clarity on Frontex’s “privileges on the ground during a joint operation”.

However, it recommended that the European Commission, member states and the agency should cooperate to develop protocols “to help better coordinate search and rescue operations and to save lives at sea when these are in danger”.

‘Frontex can get better and it must get better’

“We have to keep in mind that this is an area that concerns the proper protection of our borders, while at the same time guaranteeing the fundamental rights of some of the most vulnerable people that the Union will come across in its activities: migrants being taken advantage of by unscrupulous individuals when they at their most desperate.

“Frontex can get better, it must get better and our report aims to precisely to do that.”

Metsola remarked how the Frontex mandate agreed in 2019 is robust and “is unequivocal that the enlargement of the agency must be accompanied by a strong framework to protect fundamental rights.

“Over the last months we have held meetings with the agency, the Commission, the Portuguese Presidency, legal experts, investigative journalists, NGOs, the EU Ombudsman, representatives of Coast Guard and fundamental rights bodies. We also conducted a virtual mission to the Agency’s headquarters in Warsaw.

“What we sought to do was to cast as wide a net as possible within the limited time frame given to us of four months to conduct this investigation and react to allegations of fundamental rights violations.

“We have requested countless documents from the Agency and the Commission, submitted questions and follow-up questions in writing. Our work was designed to strengthen Frontex, to make its operations better, and to ensure security while protecting rights.”

Frontex, she said, is essential to the integrity of the European Union and we want to ensure that it is able to fulfil the entirety of its crucial mandate.

“Can it be improve? Of course, but Frontex is here to stay and our recommendations are designed so that it is able to ensure it is able to reach citizens’ expectations going forward.”

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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