Migration in the Mediterranean: Frontex or the culture of impunity

An exit that puts Frontex’s practices in the spotlight. Director of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency since 2015, Fabrice Leggeri resigned last Thursday. Accepted on Friday by the Board of Directors, he follows an investigation completed in February by the European Anti-Fraud Office (Olaf) against French, in particular for illegal return of immigrants. “The report is very embarrassing on a personal level, they intercepted emails that can make you an accessory to murder, as it covered a number of incidents of illegal pushbacks that Frontex was involved in,” explains Omer Shatz, lawyer and legal director of the organization. front-LEX From a legal point of view, for the forty-seven member states of the Council of Europe, these famous “backs” violate in particular the principle of non-refoulement which prohibits the return of a threatened person to his persecutor. “The risk must be evaluated individually for each person before making any decision, the lawyer recalls. The collective return of migrants is therefore essentially illegal.”

just a facade

But for the agency, it would be mostly about responding to what is seen as a security threat. Responsible for ensuring the protection of the external borders of the 27, Frontex has been allocated the largest budget of all the agencies of the European Union (EU), i.e. €5.6 billion for the period 2021-2027. A generous allocation that testifies to a rare consensus and the priority of the EU to block the arrival of immigrants at its doors, because for Omer Shatz, in fact, there is no real distinction between the agency and the EU. “Frontex is just a façade (…). The board of directors of the agency, are the twenty-seven and two positions for the Commission”, explains the lawyer. Already in this logic of security, the EU announced in 2019 the reinforcement of Frontex on the eve of the European elections. A training and equipping program for a permanent corps of 10,000 agents by 2027, but above all an extension of its mandate, which involves improving cooperation with border surveillance agencies of third countries and better preventing illegal immigration. A means in fact of subcontracting interception services at sea by sharing the positions of migrant boats with third country coast guards and thus avoiding any direct involvement in illegal returns.

Human rights violations

These joint operations are especially common with Libya, the main departure point for African immigrants trying to reach Europe by crossing the central Mediterranean. A close collaboration with the EU that became official in 2017 with the signing of the Malta agreements and that constitutes a strong point of convergence for criticism. The absence of a central political authority in Libya has created a climate of lawlessness and severely limits the application of human rights standards. Despite the formation in March 2021 of the Government of National Unity (GNU) under the auspices of the UN, with the aim of unifying the Libyan executive, the country now has two Prime Ministers who perpetuate internal divisions: Fathi Bashaga, appointed in March 2022 by Parliament and supported by Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who has controlled the east of the country since 2017 at the head of the LNA (Libyan National Army), and Abdelhamid Dbeidah, bearer of the legacy of the GNA (Government of national unity) in the West, whose mandate expired last December but who refuses to leave the head of the Executive before new elections. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in 2021, 32,425 sub-Saharan migrants were forcibly returned to Libya while trying to cross the central Mediterranean, almost three times more than in 2020. By equipping and coordinating outsourcing operations, Frontex has a obligation to ensure that there are no human rights violations linked to them, which is obviously not the case”, emphasizes Omer Shatz. Although Amnesty International has reported at least 33 in operation since 2018, these detention centers are known to be places of horror in which “torture, rape and sexual violence” are practiced, but also “extortion”, “forced labor” and “homicides”, according to the organization Human rights violations widely documented by NGOs and carried out systematically, with total impunity, by Libyan militias, armed groups or security forces. Proof of this is the appointment last January of a militia leader allegedly implicated in these crimes, Mohammed al-Khoja, as head of the Directorate for the Fight against Illegal Migration (DCIM) of the Libyan Ministry of the Interior.

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The overwhelming presence of evidence of the illegal nature of the redirection of migrants to Libya agitates human rights advocates. Numerous legal proceedings in this regard have been initiated against Frontex. The latest, the German NGO Sea-Watch, which filed a complaint in mid-April against the agency, accusing it of not disclosing the positions of the ships in danger to the European rescue ships in order to preferentially call the Libyan coast guards. On July 31, 2021, not being informed of its immediate proximity to a migrant boat, the humanitarian ship Sea Watch 3 was unable to rescue the boat.

lucrative criminal activities

A situation in which the Libyan government benefits from it. The cooperation with the EU essentially renews the 2008 friendship treaty established between Italy, the first destination for African immigrants passing through Libya, and former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. In other words, in exchange for blocking the entry of African immigrants into Libya, the EU agrees to rebuild the Libyan coast guard force, destroyed after NATO’s intervention in the country in 2011. It is about providing a set of militias , “between 6 and 12 according to Omer Shatz, salaries, training, equipment and ships to carry out their interdiction operations at sea. “The benefits of cooperation for Tripoli can be summed up more generally in one thing: money” “A terrifying, well-crafted and lucrative migration industry. The business model is simple: “Detainees are filmed being tortured and/or raped, then the videos are transferred via social media to relatives of the detainees. victims, who must pay 10,000 dollars in exchange for their release”, explains the lawyer, for whom “the EU actually allows the very existence of these camps”.

Faced with repeated criticism, the European Parliament, in charge of supervising the agency, had requested in October 2021 the freezing of 12% of the Frontex budget for 2022 – that is, 90 million euros – until improvements were made, in particular “in the control of fundamental rights,” according to the official press release. But the decision of the Frontex Management Board last March 18 to include new equipment, lethal and non-lethal weapons, by the year 2023, raises questions about the effectiveness of the control mechanisms. The agency did not respond to our interview requests on this subject. For Omer Shatz, “the competent bodies that are supposed to supervise Frontex are too weak, the Parliament is too weak and given the failure of these mechanisms, Frontex enjoys total impunity”.

An exit that puts Frontex’s practices in the spotlight. Director of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency since 2015, Fabrice Leggeri resigned last Thursday. Accepted on Friday by the Board of Directors, he follows an investigation completed in February by the European Anti-Fraud Office (Olaf) against the French, in particular …

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