“Member States remain responsible for the consequences of returning people to third countries”

The European Commission has recently proposed to strengthen the EU Border Agency Frontex. If this proposal is adopted, Frontex would be able to co-lead border patrol operations with EU member States, deploy liaison officers in third countries, and coordinate joint return operations.

Bjarte Vandvik, Secretary General of ECRE, is meeting today Ilka Laitinen, Director of Frontex, to discuss about civil society’s involvement in Frontex work and the impact of the revised mandate on the respect of fundamental rights within the context of Frontex activities. ECRE has asked Michal Parzyszek, Frontex Spokesperson, what these changes would mean for Frontex in practice.

Do you believe the new Frontex mandate, if adopted, will put an end to the criticisms on human rights violations that the agency has faced in the past?

Frontex does not replace the border control activities of the Member States as these are performed by, and remain the primary responsibility of the latter. Frontex provides an added value to them by conducting risk analysis, coordinating operational cooperation, bringing experts together, training them, sharing knowledge, and improving interoperability and efficiency. Frontex has always had the highest commitment to the respect of human rights: this is one of the guiding principles in all our activities. Our close work with UNHCR and IOM (with whom we have cooperation agreements) demonstrates this, as does our human rights training for the officers participating in our operations. Having said that, the revised mandate of the Agency formalises this commitment and makes respect of the fundamental rights of all those crossing the EU’s external borders (whether legally or illegally) mandatory for states participating in operations led by us. We are encouraged by the Commission’s proposal in this regard and see the strengthening of respect for human rights not only as an essential part of what it means to be European but as a key tool for the promotion of the common and high standards among European border guards which we are mandated to promote.

Who would be responsible if somebody is sent back to a place where he or she faces persecution: Frontex, Member States, or third countries?

Only Member States have jurisdiction over immigration and asylum issues and it is therefore Member States that have the responsibility to decide to which countries it is safe to return failed asylum seekers. Similarly to all its other activities, Frontex has only a coordinating role in returns. This means that if more than one Member State wish to cooperate in their border control activities and operations, Frontex will seek to facilitate this by looking for synergies and economies of scale.
For example, if a country organises a return flight, we dispatch information about such an activity to other EU member states and coordinate cooperation in this field and co-finance joint flights under the condition that more than one country participates. It is too early to comment on the impact that posting Frontex ILOs would have on refugees.

Are migrants taking longer and more dangerous routes to enter Europe in order to try to circumvent border controls?

Looking at migration trends from the last two years, I would say that migrants nowadays are taking the shortest possible way. The external border section where the migratory pressure has been the highest is the land and sea border between Greece and Turkey. The proposal would allow Frontex to post Immigration Liaison Officers (ILOs) in third countries.

How will it be ensured that the activities of these ILOs do not affect the chances of refugees to flee from persecution when they are not in possession of the necessary travel documents?

As you quite rightly say in your question, this is merely a proposal of the Commission and it is not appropriate for us to speculate on the answers. We will be able to take a position on this issue once this document is finalized; it is now subject of discussion of the Council Working groups and therefore they would be a more appropriate addressee of this question.

Will there be more opportunities for civil society involvement in various aspects of Frontex’s work?

Frontex is fully engaged in discussion with civil society. We talk to citizens through the media, receive their feedback, and reply to enquiries of private citizens, journalists and researchers. We actively participate in conferences and public debates. This interview is a good example of such a discussion, which we greatly appreciate. So far, the problem Frontex has faced has been the fact that Member  States pledge to deliver equipment but they do not fulfil their pledge. The new mandate obliges them to keep their pledges.

Do you think this could lead to Member States refusing to pledge anything in the first place?

I do not think so. Currently, Member States are discussing the introduction of such a legal obligation and these discussions give them the opportunity to find a common position.
However, keep in mind that the participation of the Member States in our operations is quite high even without such a provision being in place. For example, there are 24 European countries taking part in Operation Poseidon in Greek/Turkish waters. Concerning the amendment of the Schengen Borders Code and the guidelines for disembarkation following a rescue at sea, some Member States (Malta, Italy) have threatened not to host Frontex operations any more.

Do you think this position is reasonable?

I am not sure if the amendments will be adopted. The Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) of the European Parliament (EP) has rejected it due to legal inconsistencies. I would not like to speculate about the motivations of Italy and Malta to make such statements. Perhaps they were, at least in part, motivated by the same reasons as those given by the Legal Service of the EP. So far, Italy and Malta have been among the countries that are actively participating in Frontex operations. I hope this will not change in the future.

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