EU border protection agency – new trouble for Frontex


Status: 23.05.2024 06:15 a.m.

According to research by NDR and WDR Difficulties with their new elite unit. Internal investigations following new pushback allegations are also causing unrest.

By Manuel Bewarder, Giorgos Christides, Stefanie Dodt and Jonas Schreijäg, NDR/WDR

The EU border protection agency Frontex is struggling with several internal problems. This is shown by research by Reschke TelevisionOn the one hand, there are difficulties with the new Frontex elite force, the Standing Corps. In addition, there are new internal investigations into possible involvement in illegal pushbacks of migrants.

The European agency based in Warsaw is once again threatened with trouble – and the new director Hans Leijtens, who has only been in office for just over a year, has to ask himself whether the restart he has announced will actually succeed.

The new Standing Corps is considered the EU Commission’s prestige object in the fight against irregular migration and cross-border crime. By 2027, a total of 10,000 employees should gradually be available – either employed directly by Frontex or seconded by the EU member states. The political decision to set up such a large unit in just a few years came as a surprise to many in 2019.

Criticism from several Member States

The new research now shows that several EU member states have expressed clear internal criticism of the new elite unit. This is evident from a meeting protocol of the Strategic Committee on Immigration, Borders and Asylum (SAEGA), which was exclusively viewed for this research. The paper dates from February. High-ranking European officials exchange views in the committee.

A few countries praised the new troops. However, states on the EU’s external border in particular were critical. Spain, for example, stated that the Standing Corps personnel are currently often not usable effectively. Greece criticized the selection process, training and capacity building of the new unit as “in need of improvement”.

Several countries, including Italy and France, complained that the unit was not tailored well enough “to the needs and requirements of the member states”.

“Massive task”

Confronted with the allegations, the EU Commission stated that Frontex was required to make improvements. Frontex itself responded that setting up the first uniformed EU unit meant a “massive task” and that there was no model for it. Despite various challenges, the agency says it is on track to have 10,000 border officers in 2027.

As research suggests, the EU Commission and Frontex have so far made the new Standing Corps appear larger than it actually is in action. According to the plans, around 7,500 of the future 10,000 people should be ready by the end of 2023.

In fact, there have never been so many people deployed for Frontex at any time. Many positions are only filled by member states for several months and not for a whole year, and some reserve officials have not yet been deployed at all. Converted to full-time positions, Frontex did not have 7,500 people employed in the Standing Corps at the end of 2023, but extrapolated to only around 4,200 people.

New pushback allegations

New pushback allegations are also causing unrest in the EU agency. Pushbacks are the pushing back of migrants from the EU without them being able to apply for asylum. In the past, cases have repeatedly become public in which border guards in member states have sometimes used force to prevent migrants from entering the EU.

Frontex’s involvement in pushbacks by individual member states had plunged it into a deep crisis. Long-time director Fabrice Leggeri resigned from his post in 2022 because of the allegations. His successor Leijtens took office with a promise not to tolerate any more such pushbacks.

Frontex director Leijtens came into office with the promise that he would no longer tolerate pushbacks.

“I am responsible for ensuring that my people do not take part in something that is called pushback,” said the Dutchman in 2023. As research now shows, there have been at least two recent incidents in which migrants were apparently sent back into Turkish waters .

Masked men threaten migrants with sticks

The first incident occurred on January 25, 2024: video footage shows masked men approaching a full dinghy with about 30 people in a small boat that obviously belongs to the Greek coast guard. The masked men can then be seen threatening the migrants with sticks. In the background, a ship of the Lithuanian coast guard can be seen, which is deployed for Frontex in the Aegean.

A few hours later, the dinghy was apparently intercepted by Turkish authorities in Turkish waters. A comparison of the Turkish coast guard’s statement on the incident and the available video footage suggests that it is the same boat with the same people.

Pushed back into Turkish waters?

The second possible pushback, in which Frontex apparently did not intervene, is said to have taken place on February 19, 2024. According to research, around 30 people were sitting on a rubber dinghy in the early morning – men, women and children. When other boats were nearby, some called for help. This is shown by video recordings that NDR and WDR One of the larger ships nearby carries the flag of the Bulgarian Coast Guard and is deployed for Frontex.

However, the migrants calling for help were not subsequently brought to safety in Greece, but instead ended up in Turkish waters. An eyewitness later told reporters that Greek officials had pushed the dinghy back into Turkish waters. This statement cannot be verified beyond doubt.

Possible pushbacks reconstructed

Reschke television has reconstructed these two possible pushbacks together with the Berlin-based research agency Forensis. For the analyses, interviews were conducted with eyewitnesses and recordings were evaluated that were taken by people on rubber dinghies and were first shared with the Norwegian NGO Aegean Boat Report.

Forensis was able to compare the mountain ranges in the video with the real landscape using a visual comparison and thus determine the suspected crime scenes more precisely. Accordingly, both incidents occurred in Greek waters. There are further indications that the incidents took place in the EU: this is also indicated by cell phone location data transmitted by people on the boats.

The Greek Coast Guard, however, stated that saving human lives on the high seas was an absolute obligation for them. Their own operations were always carried out in full compliance with applicable law: “The Greek Coast Guard therefore rejects all allegations regarding the alleged pushbacks,” they said.

No legal definition of pushbacks

There is no legal definition for pushbacks. However, pushbacks are generally considered illegal if people are prevented from applying for asylum and are forced back across the EU’s external border.

According to a handbook, Frontex officers are even required to “proactively identify and educate people about their rights who may wish to seek international protection.” In the end, Frontex can only make its own decisions to a limited extent. In joint operations with national authorities, the operational management lies with the respective member state.

When asked, Frontex confirmed that both incidents and the possible involvement of Frontex had triggered an internal investigation. When confronted with the recordings, Frontex boss Leijtens explained that his people were instructed to rescue people in distress at sea.

In view of the new allegations, Leijtens said in an interview with Reschke television: “We are a modern agency and we uphold European values.” Frontex staff should not stand by and watch when illegal pushbacks are carried out right in front of their eyes. “I want them to really do something,” said Leijtens, referring to his staff. “They should not sit back and relax because they think that another country is just doing its own thing.”

Frontex initiated so-called serious incident reports on both incidents – this is the name given to internal investigations into special incidents. When asked, Frontex said that the investigations were not yet complete.

You can see more on the topic on Reschke Fernsehen – from 6 p.m. in the ARD media library and at 11:35 p.m. on Erste.

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