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Frontex, Civil Society Organsations, and Human Rights at EU Borders: A Complex Relationship



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Guest post by Leila Giannetto. Leila is a researcher at FIERI - International and European Forum on Migration Research in Torino (Italy). She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Trento with a thesis titled “More than consultation. Civil society organisations mainstreaming fundamental rights in EU border management policies: the case of Frontex and its Consultative Forum”. Her research interests focus on Frontex and fundamental rights, on civil society organisations’ role in the governance of EU border management and asylum, and on the reception and integration of refugees and asylum seekers in EU member states. This is the final post of Border Criminologies themed series on 'Deaths at Borders' organised by Marta Esperti and Antoine Pécoud. The series draws upon a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist, coordinated by Marta and Antoine.

On March 26th 2020, the EU celebrated the 25th anniversary of the abolition of border checks among the first seven European Member States that implemented the Schengen Agreement. Needless to say, celebrations this year did not seem particularly relevant, nor particularly fitting the climate of uncertainty and fear looming over Europe. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed the closure of EU internal and external borders in an effort to stop the spreading of the virus from one country to the other. However, the closure of EU borders, while halting regular crossings, deterred only briefly irregular crossings towards the EU, exacerbated the unsafe, unhealthy and too often inhumane conditions of people waiting at the doors of the EU to flee from poverty, climate change and persecution, among others (e.g., on the Balkan route and in Libya).

Ensuring the protection and promotion of human rights of people trying to cross the EU borders has been at the core of the advocacy activity of many civil society organisations (CSOs), including NGOs, especially since the last decade. In the last decade, indeed, the arrival of migrants and refugees on EU shores (i.e., in 2011 and 2015) that became known as “migration and refugee crisis” was perceived as an “invasion” (de Haas, 2008) and thus triggered the creation of virtual and real fences. These EU fences have had one major outcome identified by CSOs and scholars: deaths and inhuman treatment of people attempting to cross the European borders.  In order to increase the effectiveness of their advocacy activity, some of these CSOs have expanded their presence and advocacy efforts at the EU level, while many other CSOs continue to remain outside EU headquarters and to advocate for human and migrants’ rights from below. Both categories, however, have been facing harsh criticism and even criminalisation for their activities — for example, search and rescue at sea and at land borders — at national and local levels, something that has been widely addressed by the authors of Border Criminologies blog (see here, here and here).

Against this background, there is one peculiar experience of cooperation between the European Border and Coast Guard agency (EBCG) – most commonly known as Frontex – and CSOs concerned for the protection and promotion of human rights at the EU borders: the Frontex Consultative Forum on fundamental rights (CF). Frontex is the most controversial EU actor in the field of border control and migration management: since its inception in 2004, Frontex has been not only strongly blamed by migrant rights’ advocates and human rights’ activists, but it has also been repeatedly questioned by members of the European Parliament and by the European Ombudsman regarding the respect of fundamental rights at the external borders of the EU, all the while growing exponentially in terms of funds, competences and human resources. For these reasons, in 2011 Frontex had to establish a Consultative Forum on fundamental rights, whose role is to assist the EU agency with independent advice on fundamental rights issues. The CF became operational in 2012 with nine CSO members together with four international organizations (i.e., UNHCR, OSCE/ODIHR, Council of Europe, and IOM) and two other EU agencies, namely European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). In January 2020, the composition of the CF was reduced to fourteen members, with CSOs that currently count six members: Amnesty International EIO, Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe, International Commission of Jurists, Jesuit Refugee Service Europe, Red Cross EU Office, and Save the Children. In this last composition of the CF several relevant organisations have disappeared, such as the AIRE centre, Caritas Europa, ECRE and PICUM. The mixed nature and the small composition of this CF is peculiar to Frontex, as other EU agencies’ consultative fora (i.e., EASO Consultative forum) are significantly more numerous and include mainly CSOs.

The opportunity for CSOs to lobby Frontex from within the CF is unique for several reasons. First, the ability of CF members to request information from Frontex on fundamental rights related issues and to visit and observe Frontex operations first hand. Indeed, since 2014, CF members have started to travel to the borders of the EU and to observe Frontex operations first visiting air borders operations (i.e., airports), then also land and sea borders and the highly contested return operations. However, the CF has repeatedly lamented issues with access to information, which should be effective as per art. 108 of the EBCG regulation (2019/1896); in the CF annual report of 2017 this is clearly stated:  “the Forum continues to face serious and further limitations particularly in relation to relevant operational reference and guiding documents”. Second, the close relationship between CF members and Frontex officers, Heads of Unit and even Management Board members, which is developed also through the organisation not only of formal meetings and exchanges between the CF and Frontex staff, but also focus groups on specific issues, such as the discussion on the observation of return operations. Finally, the CF as a whole has to publish a publicly available annual report on its activities and observations on Frontex activity, which is usually detailed and highly informative, and the two CF chairs can present the work and findings of the Forum to the European Parliament (i.e., to the LIBE committee).

However, the choice of CSOs to cooperate with Frontex is constrained by a number of internal and external factors. CSOs that gained access to Frontex CF share a high level of professionalization and expertise, they also generally have an established network at the EU level, both with other CSOs and with institutional actors, and considerable financial and human resources; in addition, the majority of these organizations have an EU office with its own staff (usually small) based in Brussels. These CSOs have also the possibility to contest Frontex and to monitor its operations from outside, often being where Frontex operations and activities take place. However, while the general criteria for the selection of CSOs for the CF is public, the actual selection made by Frontex is not transparent in terms of which organisations are left out and why. Moreover, there is a clear pattern of keeping in the same members from the very beginning – five out of six members have been CF members for more than one mandate.  

In conclusion, questions regarding Frontex human rights’ accountability have not subsided and the attention of CSOs and other interested parties is still high. In a webinar organised during the pandemic (April 21st, 2020) by the The Greens/EFA in the European Parliament titled “Under Surveillance: Monitoring at the border”, both panels questioned the accountability and transparency of the EU agency and stressed the need for a stronger monitoring system to be enforced. A recent development in this sense is the establishment, in cooperation with FRA, of fundamental rights monitors whose task will be to monitor Frontex operations at EU borders. Notwithstanding the need for a more defined judicial accountability of Frontex and a more effective monitoring and complaints mechanism, CSOs’ advocacy and monitoring activity remains crucial to ensure that both European citizens and EU institutions are alerted and aware on how the first fully European border and coast guard force enforces its duty to protect and promote fundamental rights during its operations.  

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Giannetto, L. (2020). Frontex, Civil Society Organsations, and Human Rights at the EU Borders: A Complex Relationship. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/10/frontex-civil [date]

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