18th Mar 2018


Frontex: Europe's new law enforcement agency?

  • The line between Frontex and police is blurring (Photo:

When the EU border and coast guard agency known as Frontex started in 2005, it had a €6m budget. Today it pulls in €320m and employs over 530 people, a staff number set to more than double in the next few years.

But its biggest change is elsewhere. Frontex has effectively become a law enforcement agency. Focus on migration has morphed into drug smuggling, document fraud, terrorism, and cigarette smuggling. It has even seized arms.

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"I would not object if you define us as a law enforcement agency at EU level," Fabrice Leggeri, the agency's chief, told EUobserver on Tuesday (20 February).

He made similar comments earlier this year when he told MEPs that the agency has managed to return some 14,000 people last year or around nine percent of all the people returned.

Last year, it handed over 1,300 intelligence files to the EU police agency Europol, as part of a pilot project. Today, sweeping up people's personal information and sharing them with the police is standard practice, which has led to hundreds of arrests.

"Who would have imagined three years ago that an agency like Frontex collects personal data, transmits it to Europol, and to the state police services to carry out investigations and do what they need to do to prevent attacks," he said in January.

Privacy rules are not making the task easy. Frontex cannot share personal data with authorities outside the EU, except when it sends rejected migrants back to their home countries. The agency wants to find other ways of sharing data with member state intelligence agencies and is pushing to get new rules on the issue embedded into EU law.

Such a shift has been developing over the past 18 months when the Frontex mandate was changed, allowing it to collect personal data, sift through it, and share it with Europol and national authorities.

Frontex works with the police and customs. It is getting more involved in the EU's common security and defence policy (CSDP). It has deployed liaison officers to places like Niger, Serbia and Turkey.

It has under its command up to 1,800 deployed officers after its mandate was expanded in 2016, following the large inflow of people from Turkey into Greece.

The refugee crisis at the time emboldened policy makers. Soon afterwards, they attempted to give Frontex the right to enter a member state without its consent. They failed. Had they succeeded, Leggeri would have had further ammunition for his declaration in January.

The organisation has perseverance in its ambitions to become an EU law enforcer.

Earlier this month, it launched a new naval operation Themis along with the Italian interior ministry to crack down on returning foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq.

"We are developing, we are training our deployed officers, in order so that they are more aware of terrorist threats," said Leggeri of the new operation.

Jihadis return to Europe

Most of those changes appear to have been driven by fear of terror reprisals. The agency's risk analysis report out earlier this week suggests around 30 percent of the some 5,000 EU nationals that have fought alongside jihadists have since returned to Europe.

When asked how many returning fighters posing as refugees have been detected, given the loss of ground by Islamic State, Leggeri remains vague.

Such manoeuvres have made it increasingly difficult for people to reach Europe to seek refuge. Behind each figure is a person, some with legitimate reasons for fleeing their home countries. Some have been prosecuted for helping people cross the sea by boat, when they were given a satellite phone by smugglers or had been appointed as the vessel's "captain".

Many are hoping to find refuge, others want jobs, and like Syrians fleeing war, the vast majority either won't have any papers or will carry forged documents.

"Real people in need of protection usually have a fake document because if you are an asylum seeker in need of protection you don't go to the government office to apply for a passport," Leggeri told MEPs in January.

But therein lies a problem. The more controls that are erected, the more creative people get in finding ways around them.

It is also an admission Leggeri himself pointed out, noting that as border checks improve a trend could arise "when it comes to people of interest from a security perspective."

Document fraud is likely to increase as a result, he said, in what appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for Frontex to become Europe's new law enforcement agency.

Frontex naval operation to look for 'foreign fighters'

The EU border and coast guard agency, or Frontex, has launched a new naval operation called Themis. The operation replaces its surveillance Triton mission but with a bigger emphasis on security and intelligence gathering.

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