Created in 2004 to protect the external borders of the Schengen system, Frontex has often been criticized for its ineffectiveness and overzealousness. But with the evolution of the migration crises from Belarus to Afghanistan, the EU risks a state of chaos.
In a word
- Frontex faces a new migration challenge
- The agency is not up to the task
- Fragmented responses risk another crisis
Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, was established in 2004 to help European Union member states protect the external borders of the Schengen system. Funded from the EU budget and with contributions from Schengen countries, it has experienced many problems in recent years and has had its fair share of criticism. Faced with another possible crisis, with increasing migratory flows on several fronts, policymakers are wondering if and how the agency can adapt.
After the first Frontex reforms in 2011, the crisis triggered by a wave of migration in 2015 forced the European Commission to draw up a plan to strengthen the security of the EU’s external borders. Frontex has proved incapable of managing migratory flows due to the lack of support from the Member States and, above all, to the insufficiency of its resources and staff. The agency was also shown to lack the power to conduct border control operations or rescue migrants at sea.
For these reasons, in December 2015 the Commission proposed a new agency to replace and extend Frontexmandate to manage the EU’s external borders. Thus, in 2016, the agency was strengthened. Its mandate has been extended from migration control to border management, with more responsibilities in the fight against cross-border crime and search and rescue in the surveillance of maritime borders, using ships, planes and drones. The Frontex situation center for external border surveillance – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – has been launched.
To insure the agency, its budget has been gradually increased, from the 143 million euros initially planned for 2015 to 238 million in 2016, 281 million in 2017 and 322 million euros by 2020. Frontex’s 2021-2027 budget provides for a total of 5.6 billion euros. The agencys staff has also grown from 402 in 2016 to around 1,500 in 2021. However, this development in its capacity has not been followed by a parallel growth in administrative capacity.
In the Mediterranean, Frontex has three missions, called Thémis, Poseidon and Minerva / Indalo.
The first is based in the central Mediterranean and was born in 2018 to replace Triton, launched four years earlier. With Themis, Frontex focuses on surveillance against illegal entry to the EU’s sea borders and related transnational illegal activities, including fundamentalist terrorism. The patrol areas are in the east, given the flows from the Balkans where drug trafficking has developed. Poseidon and Minerva, on the other hand, concern the eastern and western Mediterranean.
Frontex vehicles and agents in all three cases help local coastal authorities to monitor maritime areas affected by migration. Another mission is also active in the Western Balkans to help member states deal with external pressure.
Evaluate the numbers
The pandemic has not stopped the arrival of illegal immigrants, judging by the latest data from Frontex. In the first ten months of 2021, there has been a striking increase in arrivals to EU countries, up 70% from the same period in 2020. Compared to data from the pre-Covid period (2019), the growth is still evident, at 45 percent. Last October, 22,800 illegal immigrants arrived in Europe, an increase of 30% compared to October 2020 and 18% more than in the same month of 2019.
The most significant increase is found in the central Mediterranean, and therefore in Italy and Malta, with 55,000 arrivals, up 91% compared to 2020. In October alone, which recorded 6,240 arrivals, the increase was 85% from 2020 and 186% from. to 2019. The agency underlined, in particular, “the significant development in October” concerning the arrivals by sea of illegal immigrants from Turkey to Italy. They are mainly Tunisians, Sinhalese and Egyptians, the latter arriving mainly from the Libyan coast.
Some in the European Parliament felt that the agency’s actions were ineffective, while others felt that it had acted too harshly.
The Frontex report also notes a sharp increase in arrivals via the Balkan route from the eastern border, which has been in the center of public attention due to a standoff between Poland and Belarus in recent months. From the east, 8,000 people have arrived in Europe since the start of 2021, an increase of 1,444%, which brings us back to the figures for 2015. Arrivals from Africa to Spain have not either. decreased, with an increase of 14% compared to the Western Mediterranean Route. And especially towards the Canary Islands – Spanish overseas territory and therefore the EU – significant increases are evident: 46% compared to 2020, and even 1,020% compared to 2019.
However, these numbers are still not overwhelming. While in Italy there are today around 128,000 refugees (0.2% of the population), in France there are 408,000 (0.6%), in Germany 1,147,000 (1.4%) and in “little” Sweden 254,000 (2.5%). Irregular arrivals to Italy by sea have increased from lows in 2019, but are around 45,000 per year, compared to 150,000 to 180,000 per year in the period 2014-2017.
facts and figures
In terms of international agreements, after several months of tensions with Turkey, EU member states have announced their willingness to renew the agreement on migration which expired in March 2021. The European Commission has planned 585 million dollars. additional euros for “humanitarian transition funding” for the whole of 2021. The high-level meetings between the European and Turkish institutions demonstrate their keen interest in negotiating an agreement, although they also reflect underlying disputes still to be resolved.
Over the years Frontex has often been criticized. Some in the European Parliament have judged his actions ineffective, while others feel that he has acted too harshly. The first group of detractors includes those who have focused on the continuing increase in migration flows and repeated emergencies on the most active fronts. The second group of critics includes the Greens and the Socialists and Democrats who, supported by NGOs and various associations, accused Frontex of helping the Greek authorities to illegally reject hundreds of migrants during the refugee crisis that erupted in January 2020. On this occasion, some MEPs considered asking for the resignation of the controversial director of the agency, Fabrice Leggeri from France.
Despite these criticisms, Frontex can strengthen itself in the years to come. Leggeri, during a hearing before the Schengen Commission of the Italian parliament, admitted the possibility of new agents and a further increase in arms and resources. The opening of a new migration front in Belarus in 2021 and the specter of a resumption of immigration from Afghanistan are pushing the EU to apply stricter border control measures. In particular, it is about putting the emphasis on a stronger Frontex.
A fundamental question of whether to link the Frontex to the Schengen borders or to start further, in the Sahel and the Middle East, remains unanswered.
Recent talks have focused on migrants – around 4,000 – arriving from Afghanistan and other troubled countries, such as Iraq and Syria, who ended up on the border between Poland and Belarus. Will there be a wave of migration from the Balkans this year due to the collapse of Afghanistan? If we look at the more recent past, it seems unlikely.
Based on data from those who observe European borders daily – Frontex and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – on the 2.5 million Afghan refugees registered by the United Nations agency last summer , the majority had moved to neighboring countries, especially Pakistan and Iran. Only around 400,000 of these refugees, or 16 percent, have received protection in European countries. Between 2008 and 2020, European countries (including non-EU countries such as the UK, Norway and Switzerland) received 600,000 asylum applications from Afghans, accepting 310,000. a total of 290,000 people have been rejected and some 70,000 have already been repatriated. Another 92,000 Afghans have been awaiting the outcome of their asylum claims in recent months.
According to Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the heterogeneous responses of the various European governments to these arrivals are likely to continue in 2022 and to leave the European Union in a state of disorder – even chaos, if the migratory wave begins to grow steadily. exponential.
In an attempt to respond to this, the European Commission has invested in deepening cooperation between member states, such as the next draft of a voluntary return and reintegration assistance strategy. However, the pledge by member states to promote the uptake of assisted voluntary return still rests on somewhat fragile foundations.
It is clear that Frontex cannot act alone: there needs to be coordinated support from Member States for operations on the ground. The EU’s border control agency has grown strongly in recent years, but the number of migrants from fragile or failed countries will increase, while the agency will be unable to do much with thousands of people at the gates of Europe. A fundamental question of whether the Frontex strategy should be linked to the Schengen borders or start further away, in the Sahel and the Middle East, remains unanswered.
Such a shift in speed is unlikely to happen anytime soon – leaving Europe’s borders porous to irregular migratory flows, a state of affairs that will turn into a guillotine on the head of a short-sighted political class.