At the end of April, Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the European border agency Frontex, resigned. He had faced allegations of human rights abuses against refugees and was being investigated, along with two other staff, by the EU’s anti-fraud agency. In his resignation letter, he said the term for which he was elected “has been changed silently but effectively”.
This was widely interpreted as a comment on how much, or how much, Leggeri considered human rights principles to be relevant to his position: to guard Europe’s borders.
Frontex was created in 2004. Since then, its budget has grown from €6 million to nearly €550 million last year. This growth is expected to continue, with the agency now recruiting a permanent corps of 10,000 border and coast guards by 2027.
Yet in the Aegean, the agency has reportedly been implicated in illegal pushbacks.
“Let’s not pretend that Frontex has gone rogue. It was done in the service of the States, they just wanted it done out of sight”
In the central Mediterranean, the EU stopped naval patrols three years ago, with Frontex instead carrying out aerial surveillance – including by flying drones – to spot refugee boats and relay this information to the Libyan coast guard, in a circumvention of international law which prohibits people from being returned to a place where their life is in danger.
The returns continue. Nearly 1,000 men, women and children who tried to cross the central Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe were forced to return to Libya in less than a week this month. More than 93,000 have been returned since 2017, when the EU began spending tens of millions of euros to train and equip the Libyan coast guard.
Frontex seeks to develop. In February, EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson suggested the agency start patrolling off Senegal on the West African coast to quell the rise in the number of people taking a dangerous route to the Canary Islands, which may take a week or even 10 days at sea.
So, despite the evidence of gross human rights violations, Frontex should continue its work under a new leadership. Daniel Howden, the chief executive of Lighthouse Reports, a collaborative journalism organization that has long investigated Frontex, called Leggeri’s resignation a “victory for investigative journalism”.
“But I understand why Leggeri seems confused in his farewell letter,” Howden continued. “He provided the technical veneer and denial that EU member states wanted… Let’s not pretend Frontex has gone rogue. It was done in service of the states, they just wanted it done out of sight.
Activists, lawyers and human rights defenders, who have long raised awareness of the brutal and deadly effects of the European Union’s tougher migration policy, continually question the lack of public interest and concern European.
On May 15, in Switzerland, more than two-thirds of Swiss voters backed a referendum to increase Frontex funding from almost 23 million euros to almost 60 million euros in five years. Opponents of Switzerland’s contribution had argued that “Frontex’s activities promote the racist narrative of migration as a threat” and that safe migration should be facilitated rather than violently prevented.
Supporters say now is the time for change: 70 years after the start of the global refugee system as we know it, the world faces a crucial challenge when it comes to the treatment of people trying to get to safety . The rich world is increasingly spending huge sums of money to keep refugees and migrants out – and only worsening the plight of the oppressed.
In the UK, a deal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was announced in April. It will cost the taxpayer an initial commitment of £120m to “Rwanda’s economic development and growth”, plus the actual expense of transferring and supporting people there. It faced legal challenges, but also caused terror and deep depression among those who might be affected.
Suicide attempts are a growing concern and there are reports of asylum seekers fleeing official accommodation in the UK to hide in cities. Human rights organizations say Rwanda is a dictatorship, not a country where proper control can be exercised.
“They would rather die than go to Rwanda,” an Eritrean in the UK told me this week. “They wasted a lot of money, risked their lives and their time [to get to the UK],” he said.
“It’s disgusting,” said another contact, who went through years of suffering to reach the UK, and is grateful to have arrived early enough not to be included in the transfers.
In Greece, a 26-year-old Afghan is on trial for endangering the life of his five-year-old son, who drowned when the dinghy they were on capsized in late 2020
Coincidentally, this week will also see the start of preliminary hearings against a group of 21 people involved in search and rescue operations at sea in an Italian court, five years after investigations began. Among the accused are people who worked for Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders, as well as crew members of the Iuventa, a crowd-funded ship. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
And in Greece, a 26-year-old Afghan is on trial for endangering the life of his five-year-old son, who drowned when the dinghy they were on capsized in late 2020. His lawyer says authorities have took more than six hours to effect a rescue.