Sally Hayden: The EU is spending huge sums to block migrants

Human rights concerns regarding EU agency Frontex have not stopped its budget growing

At the end of April, Fabrice Leggeri, the head of EU border agency Frontex, resigned. He had faced allegations around human rights abuses against refugees, and was being investigated, along with two other staff members, by the EU’s anti-fraud agency. In his resignation letter, he said the mandate on which he was elected “has silently but effectively been changed”.

This was widely interpreted as a commentary on how much, or how little, Leggeri saw human rights principles as being relevant to his position: to guard Europe’s borders.

Frontex was established in 2004. Since then, its budget has ballooned from €6 million to nearly €550 million last year. That growth looks set to continue, with the agency now recruiting for a permanent corps of 10,000 border and coastguards by 2027.

Yet, in the Aegean Sea, the agency was reportedly involved in illegal pushbacks.

"Let's not pretend Frontex went rogue. This was done in service of states, they just wanted it done out of sight"

In the Central Mediterranean, the EU stopped with naval patrols three years ago, with Frontex instead carrying out aerial surveillance – including by flying drones – to spot boats of refugees and transmit that information to the Libyan coastguard, in a circumnavigation of international law that prohibits people from being returned to a place where their lives are in danger.

Returns continue. Nearly 1,000 men, women and children who tried to cross the Central Mediterranean Sea to seek safety in Europe were forced back to Libya in less than one week this month. More than 93,000 have been returned since 2017, when the EU first began spending tens of millions of euro to train and equip the Libyan coastguard.

Expansion plans

Frontex is looking to expand. In February, European commissioner Ylva Johansson suggested the agency begin patrolling off Senegal, on the west African coast, to clamp down on an increase in people sailing a treacherous route towards the Canary islands, which can take a week or even 10 days at sea.

So, despite evidence of gross human rights abuses, Frontex is expected to carry on its work under a new leader. Daniel Howden, the managing director of Lighthouse Reports, a collaborative journalism organisation that had long investigated Frontex, called Leggeri's resignation "a win for investigative journalism".

“But I understand why Leggeri appears confused in his goodbye letter,” Howden continued. “He provided the technical veneer and deniability that EU member states wanted … Let’s not pretend Frontex went rogue. This was done in service of states, they just wanted it done out of sight.”

Human rights activists, lawyers and advocates, who have long been raising awareness around the brutal and deadly effects of hardening European Union migration policy, continually question the lack of interest and concern among the European public.

On May 15th, in Switzerland, more than two-thirds of Swiss voters backed a referendum to increase Frontex’s funding from nearly €23 million to nearly €60 million five years from now. Opponents to 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 instead of violently prevented.

Advocates say the time for change is now: that 70 years after the global refugee system as we know it began, the world is facing a pivotal challenge when it comes to the treatment of people who are attempting to reach safety. The rich world is increasingly spending huge amounts of money to keep out refugees and migrants – and only making the plight of the oppressed much worse.

Suicide attempts

In the UK, a deal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was announced in April. It will cost the taxpayer an initial pledge of £120 million towards “the economic development and growth of Rwanda”, along with the actual expense of transferring and supporting people there. It has been met with legal challenges, but also caused terror and deep depression among those who might be affected by it.

There are growing concerns about suicide attempts and reports that asylum seekers are fleeing official accommodation in the UK to hide out in cities. Human rights organisations say Rwanda is a dictatorship, not a country where proper scrutiny can be exercised.

“They would rather die than go to Rwanda,” one Eritrean in the UK messaged me this week. “They wasted a lot of money, risked their lives and their time [to get to the UK],” he said.

“It is disgusting,” said another contact, who went through years of suffering to reach the UK, and is thankful to have arrived early enough not to be included in the transfers.

In Greece, a 26-year-old Afghan man is standing 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 preliminary hearings against a group of 21 people who were involved in search-and-rescue at sea begin in an Italian court, five years after investigations began. The accused include people who were working with Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières, as well as crew members of the Iuventa, a crowd-funded vessel. They face up to 20 years in prison if they are found guilty.

And in Greece, a 26-year-old Afghan man is standing 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 took more than six hours to carry out a rescue.