#Frontex wants to do things differently on the Mediterranean : ’The ambition is zero deaths, otherwise you’re not worth a damn’
(INTERVIEW FRONTEX DIRECTOR IN DUTCH NEWSPAPER : Volkskrant / 9 augustus 2023 / Deepl translation from dutch)
After fierce criticism over illegal pushbacks, a soured culture and failures in the recent shipwreck in Greece, the new boss, Hans Leijtens, is trying to bring order to Europe’s border surveillance agency Frontex.
by Peter Giesen
On the internet, you can buy a ’Fuck Frontex’ T-shirt for three tens. For activists, Frontex, the European border protection agency, is the symbol of what they see as a cruel and repressive European migration and asylum policy that forces refugees and migrants to make the life-threatening crossing of the Mediterranean.
Frontex is growing fast because Europe considers the surveillance of its external borders important. By 2027, there should be 10 thousand Frontex border guards, while its annual budget will be €1 billion. But Frontex is also under fire. In 2022, the agency found itself in crisis after a scathing report by Olaf, the European Union’s anti-fraud agency. According to Olaf, the culture at its headquarters in Warsaw had soured. Moreover, Olaf confirmed what media and human rights organisations had been saying for years: Frontex was involved in illegal pushbacks, ’pushing back’ refugees and migrants without giving them the chance to apply for asylum. Information about this was covered up at headquarters. The director of Frontex, Frenchman Fabrice Leggeri, had to resign.
His successor is Dutchman Hans Leijtens (60), previously commander of the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee (typ., military police / border guards), among others. He took office in March 2023 to bring order, improve culture in Warsaw and ensure Frontex improves the rights of refugees and migrants. Frontex must change, he says, in his boardroom in a shiny, post-communist tower block in a Warsaw suburb.
Are you on a charm offensive?
’No, I wouldn’t put it that way. The biggest mistake I could make is to suggest that we are already there, that there is no problem. In fact, there is. People should expect us to adhere to professional standards. That transcends respecting the law. It is also about the question: how do you deal with migrants? But I don’t expect to be taken at my word. Words are empty if they are not followed by actions.’
So no more pushback under your leadership?
’I can’t say that because I don’t have everyone on a string.’
Surely in the past it has often been the case that a country like Greece sent migrants back, while Frontex looked the other way?
’No, I dispute that. We never looked the other way.’
But according to Olaf, Frontex deliberately directed a plane to another area so it did not have to witness Greek pushbacks.
’I don’t know, that was before my time. The Olaf report was not about the pushbacks themselves, but how Frontex handled the information about them. Olaf said: there was manipulation, there was unauthorised behaviour by managers, people were put under pressure.’
You say: incidents are always possible, but Frontex must deal with them decently.
’We have to be very transparent, even when we have made mistakes. We have to win trust. You don’t get that, you earn it. When I was commander of the Marechaussee, I fired an average of 50 people every year.
Not because I liked it, but because I saw things that could not be done. I set that example to show that there are consequences when things go wrong.’
On a screen in Frontex’s situation room, a tanker sails across the Mediterranean. The eyes of Europe’s border surveillance are in Warsaw. Planes, drones and cameras take images of the Mediterranean, the Balkans and other border areas 24 hours a day. In Warsaw, they are viewed and analysed.
In case of incidents - such as a ship in distress or a suspicious transport - local authorities are alerted. On 14 June, for example, Frontex staff were the first to spot the trawler Adriana in trouble off the coast near Greek Pylos. They alerted the Greek coastguard, but it waited a long time before intervening. Eventually, the Adriana sank, drowning an estimated 750 migrants and refugees.
The EU Ombudsman will investigate Frontex’s role in the disaster. Shouldn’t you have put more pressure on Greece so that the Greek coastguard would have acted more quickly?
’A plane of ours saw the ship, but had to turn back because it ran out of fuel. Then we were sent by Greece to another incident, south of Crete, where eighty people were floating around on an overcrowded ship. These were later rescued by the Greeks. When that was under control, we still flew to Pylos, but by then the ship had sunk.’
You do not feel that Frontex made mistakes.
’If I had that feeling, I would have said it earlier. But I’m not going to say anything now, because the investigation is in the hands of the Ombudsman.’
In the past, Frontex has often defended itself by pointing the finger at member states, especially Greece. National coastguards were guilty of pushbacks, not Frontex itself. But if member states systematically violate the fundamental rights of migrants, Frontex can withdraw from that country. Last month, Frontex’s fundamental rights officer, who monitors compliance with the fundamental rights of refugees and migrants, advocated a departure from Greece. His advice was based in part on a reconstruction by The New York Times in May 2023, which showed how the Greek coast guard put a group of migrants on Lesbos in a boat and handed them over to the Turkish coast guard.
You have not followed that advice as yet. Why not?
’The fundamental rights officer approaches this issue from the point of view of fundamental rights. He does not look at the rest: what would that mean for the effectiveness of our operation? We have people there, we have planes, they would then have to leave.’
This could also put human lives at risk, you said in the European Parliament. But how long can you continue working with Greece without becoming jointly responsible for violating fundamental rights?
’I said to the Greek minister responsible: you do have to deal with something called credibility. I think we are slowly approaching a point where we have to say: okay, but that credibility is a bit under strain now. We are now really talking very intensively with the Greeks. I do need to see results. Because otherwise credibility and even legality will come under pressure.’
If Greece does not mend its ways, withdrawal is possible?
According to French newspaper Le Monde, Frontex’s management board, which includes member states, tacitly supported Greece on the grounds that Greeks do the dirty work and stop migrants.
’It’s not like everyone is nodding there. Discussions about the legitimacy and legality of performances take place there too.’
But aren’t you running into a tension? On the one hand, you have to respect fundamental rights of migrants; on the other, EU member states want to get migration rates down.
’This is often seen as a kind of competing interest, but it is not. It’s not that you want or are allowed to stop people at all costs. There are just rules for that.’
What do you think of the deal between the EU and Tunisia?
’If we don’t get guarantees that fundamental rights will be respected, it will be very complicated for us to work with Tunisia. With any country, for that matter.’
According to Human Rights Watch, you do cooperate with Libya. Boats carrying migrants are intercepted by the Libyan coast guard, following a report from Frontex, Human Rights Watch said. This is how migrants were brought back to a country that is not safe even according to Frontex itself.
’We only pass on the positions of ships that are in trouble. If that is in the Libyan search and rescue zone, we pass that on to Libya. That is also our duty, otherwise we would be playing with human lives. Other cases are not known to me.’
Human Rights Watch gives an example of an NGO rescue ship, the Sea Watch, that received no signal, even though the Libyan coast guard was notified.
’If a ship is in trouble, only the government departments are informed. Only if a ship is in immediate danger of sinking, a mayday call goes out to all nearby ships. That is simply how it is regulated, not only in Europe, but in international maritime law.’
The debate about rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean has become highly politicised in recent years. Aid agencies are blamed for their ships acting as ’ferry services’ to Europe, while Frontex and national coastguards are seen by some as the heartless face of ’Fortress Europe’. The reality is nuanced, Italian figures, among others, show. In 2022, when migrants arrived by sea, 54 per cent were rescued by coastguards, and 14 per cent by NGO vessels. Frontex was involved in almost 24 thousand rescues from January to June 2023, according to agency figures.
’Rescuing people at sea is not a migration issue. Of course it is triggered by migration, but the moment people are at sea, it doesn’t matter what their status is. Then you just have to rescue them. I also think the NGO ships make an important contribution because they save a lot of lives. I don’t think anyone should be against that.’
Zero deaths on the Mediterranean is your ambition, you have said.
’Maybe that is impossible, but I do think you have to have that ambition, otherwise you are not worth a damn.’
Reçu via la mailing-list Migreurop, le 17.08.2023
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