10th Dec 2023

Frontex shared personal data of NGO staff with Europol six times

  • Frontex transferred the personal details of NGO staff to Europol in six out of 505 cases (Photo: Christopher Jahn/IFRC)
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The EU's border force Frontex shared the personal data of NGO staff with police in at least six cases, after collecting the information during debriefing interviews with asylum seekers as part of an anti-smuggling operation.

The findings follow earlier revelations that the Warsaw-based agency apparently held over 1,000 documents containing the word "NGO" — a figure since revised down to 505. The reports were given to Europol, the EU's police agency based in The Hague, Netherlands.

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Frontex agents collected the information during random debriefs with asylum seekers at detention centres and open camps. Aside from posing questions on police targeting civil society, it also highlights coercion issues regarding asylum seekers, as well the viability of their information.

The issue prompted the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), a Brussels-based watchdog, to make further inquires on the matter.

Last week, it told EUobserver that the true number of debriefing reports with the word NGO was in fact 505, and not 1,058 as initially reported. It said Frontex had incorrectly counted false positives such as 'ongoing' as a document containing the letters 'NGO', leading to the artificially high figure of 1,058.

"It results from our analysis of these debriefing reports that there are no structural collection and transfers from Frontex to Europol regarding personal data relating to NGOs' staff," said the EDPS.

"We found, however, that such transmission took place in six cases out of 505, whose lawfulness will be further investigated," it added.

The Frontex-Europol data exchange, known as PEDRA ('Processing of Personal Data for Risk Analysis'), has in the past generated controversy for possibly incriminating innocent people.

The latest incident also comes after the EDPS in June faulted Frontex, as part of a wider audit, for "automatically exchanging the debriefing reports with Europol without assessing the strict necessity of such exchange".

According to Frontex, the debriefs aim to gather intelligence and risk analysis on smuggling networks. The agency says it only processes personal data of people suspected by national authorities of being involved in cross-border crimes.

"Such data may only be processed for risk-analysis purposes, and for transmission on a case-by-case basis to Europol," says Frontex.

The six cases cited by EDPS come at a time when civil society organisations working on migration and asylum are finding themselves under intense pressure.

Last year, over 100 human rights defenders faced criminal or administrative proceedings in the EU for helping migrants, according to the NGO Picum.

With some now possibly ending up on an Europol police database, the issue is likely to raise additional alarm.

Uku Särekanno, Frontex's deputy director, told MEPs last year that the debriefs had led to some 13,000 possible suspects between 2016 and 2022.

NGOs appear in over 1,000 Frontex smuggling documents

Frontex officers regularly interrogate asylum seekers to glean information of possible smuggling and trafficking suspects. This is then shared with the EU's police agency, Europol. Frontex says it has over 1,000 documents linked to those interrogations where NGOs appear.

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