8th Feb 2023

Beefed up border control agency to respect rights

  • Frontex last year supported Italy's policy of pushing back African migrants at sea (Photo: nobordernetwork)

The European Commission on Wednesday (24 February) proposed to strengthen the capabilities and the human rights training of the bloc's border control agency Frontex, a body criticised by watchdogs for its tolerance to some countries' abusive procedures against migrants.

Under the proposals, the budget for Frontex will remain unchanged – €80 million a year. But unlike the past, member states who pledge to contribute with staff or equipment to the Warsaw-based body will have to stick to their promises, otherwise facing legal cases from the European Commission, home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said during a press conference.

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In her first press conference as EU commissioner, the former Swedish MEP who had always been an outspoken of human rights and transparency, pledged to keep a strong focus on the respect of fundamental rights of migrants.

The proposals she tabled include an "explicit requirement for all border guards taking part in operations to have been trained in fundamental rights," so that no migrants are sent from Europe before establishing if they are legitimate refugees or asylum seekers.

Return flights carried out by member states in co-operation with Frontex will have a member of a non-governmental organisation, such as the Red Cross, on board in order to ensure that no violation of human rights takes place.

She said this first initiative was just one of a broader package of policy proposals dealing with asylum and migration. Interior ministers meeting on Wednesday in Brussels will have a first look at this blueprint, which also needs the approval of the European Parliament before being enacted.

Pressed about the controversial role of Frontex last year in Italy's returning policy of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, Ms Malmstrom admitted that "mistakes" may have been made in the past.

"I don't exclude at all that errors were committed in the past, that's why I'm so keen to really reinforce that all the people involved in Frontex operations have the adequate education and know exactly what to do. Because of course, these people [the migrants] are not criminals, they are in the search for a better life and they have the right to be treated in a dignified way," she said.

In a report published last year, human rights watchdog Amnesty International said that Frontex was helping Italian authorities in their forced return policy taking migrants directly back to Libya, where they face detention and blackmail.

Civil groups have slammed as "shameful" the attitude from other EU member states who kept silence over Italy's gross violation of international conventions on refugees, stipulating that nobody should be sent back to countries where they may face inhuman treatment.

Ever since Rome signed a bilateral agreement with Tripoli last summer, migrant flows on the Mediterranean have decreased considerably. But the price to pay, according to several groups, is that legitimate asylum seekers and refugees from conflict zones such as Darfur are being imprisoned in poor conditions in African countries, even before they attempt to travel to Europe.

Bjarte Vandvik, from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, an umbrella group advocating for the rights of asylum seekers stressed that most of the "scaremongering" done by politicians in respect to irregular migrants had no factual basis.

It was also quite embarrassing that in 2009 most refugees who landed in Malta, an EU member state in the middle of the Mediterranean, were resettled by the United States, not by any other European country, he told journalists in a briefing on Wednesday. The US is also the biggest resettler worldwide, with some two thirds of the 30-40,000 refugees registered yearly by the United Nations. Europe, on the other hand, only accounts for seven percent of that figure.

"European governments brag about their success in fighting irregular migration but refugees who are prevented from arriving to the European territory are paying the price of this ‘success'," said Alfredo Abad from Spanish Commission for Refugees, also present at the briefing organised by the human rights groups.

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