Recently, Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE) of the European Parliament (EP) hosted the Frontex Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights to discuss their Fifth Annual Report where the consultative forum outlined their activities, observations and recommendations to Frontex and its Management Board on the Agency’s fundamental rights responsibilities. The Members’ of the Eurorean Parliament (MEPs) comments were sharp.
The report has described the reluctance of Frontex to adequately staff (in number and seniority) the Fundamental Rights Office as “of paramount importance”. It also highlighted Frontex’s delays in adopting its Fundamental Rights Strategy, something that has hindered the Agency’s ability to deliver on its increased responsibilities under the European Border and Coast Guard Regulation. Furthermore, the report has shed light on the limitations in providing effective access to information which hinders the Consultative Forum’s ability to fulfill its mandate and to provide the Executive Director and the Management Board with independent advice on fundamental rights issues.
Marta Ballestero and Stefan Kessler, Chairs of the Frontex Consultative Forum, stressed that the Forum does not have the mandate or the capacity to monitor respect for fundamental rights’ in Frontex activities. However, as they have identified certain risks, they encourage Frontex to use every possible opportunity to enhance human rights through their activities.
As one of their main concerns they described the 47% increase in the number of returns after the extension of Frontex’s mandate. They observed 3 return operations to see how Frontex works and its impacts: based on their observations, they reported that they already had discussions with Frontex management board to include the adoption of further safeguards and procedures to ensure respect of the principle of non-refoulement in the context of return activities and readmissions.
Stefan Kessler noted that they are not aware of a documentation of human rights violations conducted by Frontex; however, he went on to say that “I am sure we would be informed if there was one, but I can’t say for sure that there was nothing”. Regarding Libya, he said that they do not have their own information on the situation but rely on information from NGOs. When it comes to access to information, “it is a complex area that we deal with as some information might be classified for good reasons or not relevant to our work work” he said. Regarding visits to the operations (eg. return operations), Kessler said that there have been positive steps and they will continue discussing with Frontex “to find a middle way to operate better and be more relevant to their work”.
The discussion with Members of the European Parliament
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) talked about the reluctance of Frontex to implement human rights standards, something that, as they argued, Frontex is denying.
MEP Birgit Sippel (S&D) said that “Sometimes we could get the impression that the Fundamental Rights Officeis only a kind of an alibi for everything else that is happening in Frontex […] There is, not for the first time, an apparent reluctance of Frontex to adequately staff the Fundamental Rights Officer and this is especially alarming as, in its current form, especially this office lacks the minimum capacity to carry out its role including the monitoring of Frontex fundamental rights obligations as mandated in the regulation”. Sippel also addressed the issue of the limitations in providing the forum with information, especially in relation to relevant operational references and guiding instruments.
Sharp comments came from MEP Ana Gomes (S&D) who said that when it comes to Libya, the EU institutions and the EU Member States “are in denial”, “pretending that they are training local and armed forces” to help in dealing with refugees and migrants but actually “what we know is that these forces are indeed militia enabled to actually repress” the people.
The MEP who chaired the discussion further asked about the report’s description of the reluctance of Frontex to implement fundamental rights standards and recommendations and wondered if it is actually part of the approach which is being propagated by the Member States. As she said, “an agreement, for example, with Libya is not something that Member States do accidentally because they didn’t pay attention. They put a signature to it, so that means that they are not in denial or reluctant, it means that they are in agreement” and went on to argue that this is deliberate, “it is policy”, and that the topic cannot be resolved by the Fundamental Right Office but by the relevant stakeholders.