BRUSSELS (IPS) – The number of asylum-seekers and other migrants expelled from the European Union in joint operations between its governments has grown three times in as many years, IPS has learned.
At least 1,570 individuals were removed from the EU’s territory in 31 flights coordinated by the bloc’s external borders agency Frontex between Jan. 1 and Dec. 15 last year. This represented a tripling in joint expulsions – involving authorities from two or more EU states – since 2007. Some 428 migrants were flown out in such operations that year, with the figure rising to over 800 in 2008.
The data – unpublished until now – indicates that Frontex has rapidly stepped up the pace of its activities in the four-and-a-half years since it was founded. And the involvement of the Warsaw-based agency in expelling people who have been denied permission to remain in the EU looks set to increase further.
When the EU’s presidents and prime ministers met in Brussels in late October, they approved a plan to expand the work of Frontex. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has been asked to come forward with proposals early this year to beef up the agency’s powers. The plan foresees that the agency will finance a greater number of chartered flights for expulsions and cooperate more closely with countries from which migrants trying to enter Europe originate.
Organisations working with asylum-seekers are perturbed that Frontex is acquiring greater resources and responsibility without being required to demonstrate that fundamental human rights are safeguarded during its activities.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch drew attention to how Frontex has helped the Italian authorities expel migrants to Libya, without giving them an opportunity to apply for asylum.
In June last year, Frontex coordinated Operation Nautilus, in which a boat carrying an estimated 75 migrants was intercepted off the Italian coast. Using a German Puma helicopter, the operation was the first of its kind in which Frontex succeeded in forcing migrants from the central Mediterranean Sea back to Libya.
Titled ‘Pushed Back, Pushed Around’, the Human Rights Watch report stated that Frontex was unable to give guarantees that Libya had allowed the migrants to apply for asylum. All individuals are entitled to seek asylum from persecution in a country other than their own under the United Nations’ 61- year-old Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Bill Frelick, a campaigner on asylum issues with Human Rights Watch, said he was concerned that Frontex is being given a bigger role in expulsions and that its future operations will needed to be carefully scrutinised.
Bjarte Vandvik, director of the European Council for Refugees and Exile, a group defending the rights of asylum-seekers, said that whenever an individual is removed from the EU, the principle of “non-refoulement” must be respected. A key tenet of international refugee law, non-refoulement means that nobody should be sent to a country where he or she will be at risk of persecution.
“Frontex as an EU agency continues to struggle with issues of transparency and accountability,” said Vandvik. “It is not clear how Frontex will put in place procedures for returns (of migrants) that guarantee non-refoulement, that can be independently monitored and are safe, dignified and humane. The mandated powers and allocated budget of Frontex are expanding fast but the systems for accountability and compliance with international and EC (European Community) legal obligations are not.”
A Frontex spokeswoman said that it is not the agency’s task to monitor if human rights law is respected. “Our role is limited to coordination,” the spokeswoman added. “The rules that apply on board the plane depend on the (EU) member state owning the plane. There is a system of checks and balances in the member states. For example, Austria always requires that there is a human rights observer on board the plane.”
Philip Amaral, a policy officer with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Brussels, said that Frontex staff should be given proper training to ensure that asylum law is upheld in their operations and that the basic needs of migrants are met.
“Our primary concern with Frontex is that its activities are quite obscure,” said Amaral. “We’re always strongly arguing for increased European Parliament monitoring over Frontex, especially now that it’s foreseen that its role will be enlarged. There should be a level of monitoring to make sure that asylum- seekers and migrants have access to asylum procedures and that they are not being sent back (to another country) right away.”
Frontex previously aroused the ire of human rights workers in 2008 when it emerged that guns were pointed directly at migrants who landed in Italy during an operation in which the agency had participated. Giusto Catania, an Italian member of the European Parliament, described the use of weapons in this way as a “real scandal”. (END)
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