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3rd Apr 2020

Frontex set to help Balkan states deport migrants

  • Frontex may end up taking orders from non-EU states when it comes to returns (Photo: Stephen Ryan / IFRC)

People who have had their asylum applications rejected in countries such as Serbia may end up being deported home by the EU's border agency, Frontex.

The controversial outsourcing of the EU agency to perform such tasks, based on asylum and return decisions made by countries outside the European Union, is being discussed behind-closed doors on Thursday (28 March) in Strasbourg.

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The talks are part of a much larger reform of the Warsaw-based agency, announced by the European Commission last September.

Co-legislators are set to hammer out the final details in a so-called trilogue negotiation with the EU executive on Thursday in a bid to sort the overall reform before the European elections.

But fears are mounting Frontex may end up being used by some states outside the EU to send people back to their home countries, where they could face death or persecution, in a move also known as non-refoulement.

Non-refoulement is illegal under international law.

A draft text being discussed by the negotiators on Thursday and seen by EUobserver says "the agency [Frontex] may provide operational assistance to return activities of third countries."

It further notes that "such assistance shall be without prejudice to the exclusive competence of the third countries to issue return decisions."

The only safeguards appear to require the country to have signed up to European Convention on Human Rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Similar calls to allow Frontex to carry out returns from western Balkan countries were already rejected some two years ago during an initial overhaul of the agency.

But the possibility has now surfaced once again.

EUobserver understands EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos is piling on pressure for socialist and liberal EU lawmakers to accept the return measures.

It means people who have never set foot in the European Union and have had their cases reviewed by countries that are not bound by EU law, may end up being forced back to their home countries by Frontex.

Also known as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex has evolved over the years with more staff, bigger budget, and more responsibilities.

Its annual budget went from €6.2m in 2005 to €142m in 2015, and €239m in 2016 - with a view to reaching €322m in 2020. Some €11.3bn has been earmarked for 2021-2027.

Last year, Fabrice Leggeri, the agency's chief, described Frontex as a "law enforcement agency at EU level".

No more sea rescues

The latest move points to a further externalisation of the EU's return policy and its wider efforts to stop people from reaching the European Union.

Earlier this week, it was announced that sea rescue efforts by EU's naval Operation Sophia are set to be halted in late September, following intense pressure from Italy.

Set up in 2015, Sophia had been mandated to stop smuggling but was also bound to rescue people at sea when required.

The Italian-led mission had helped rescue hundreds of thousands of people since 2015 but became mired in a political tug-of-war over where to disembark them.

In fact, rescues had already more or less stopped since July 2018, when Italy refused to allow them ashore.

Sophia will now only provide aerial surveillance and support for the Libyan Coast Guard.

"That means more interceptions by Libyan forces and return of women, men, and children to nightmarish conditions and treatment in Libya," said Human Rights Watch's deputy director Judith Sutherland.

Analysis

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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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