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Stronger Borders Trump Human Rights At Vilnius Migration Conference

A barbed wire fence on the Belarusian-Polish border. SERGEI BOBYLEV/TASS

The head of Europe’s border agency Frontex has called on the European Union to clarify the rules on managing its external border. At a meeting of EU minsters to address an emergent ‘crisis’ of irregular migration, Fabrice Leggeri, executive director of Frontex, emphasised balancing respect for human rights with the need to manage migration across Europe’s borders. Leggeri’s statements are however directly at odds with Frontex’s own practices, EU policy concerns and the tone of the meeting.

Leggeri made his comments as EU interior ministers met in Lithuania to discuss ways to better prevent irregular migrants from crossing into EU territory and clear up the rules on when they can be deported back to their home territories.

“We are trained to comply with fundamental rights,” said Leggeri to reporters outside the meeting. “We are aware that there is a right to have international protection. But on the other hand, there are also illegal behaviours and illegal crossings that are not in line with EU regulation.”

Frontex, and Leggeri specifically, have been repeatedly accused of disregarding the human rights of irregular migrants trying to make it to Europe. Multiple investigations by NGOs and news outlets attest to Frontex collaborating with EU member states to force would-be migrants back to sea, an illegal procedure which is highly dangerous.

Such ‘pushback’ practices, which have been linked to the deaths of thousands of people at sea, have led to calls for Leggeri to step down and Frontex’s powers to be curtailed. Leggeri also faced calls to resign over his failure to recruit ‘fundamental rights officers’ into Frontex, whose job would be to safeguard the human rights of migrants.

At the meeting in Vilnius, however, Leggeri seemed to suggest a lack of clarity in EU policy was the real issue: “The legal clarification is needed everywhere in the EU, to know what is possible and what is not.”

Some EU policy in recent years has indeed led to the abrogation of migrants’ right to protections. The decision to withdraw search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, ostensibly as a way to increase deterrence factors (the logic being that if migrants think they will be rescued they would be more likely to embark on a perilous crossing), have been credibly linked to rising death tolls in and around Europe’s waters.

While many EU member states and individual MEPs have expressed concern over the EU neglecting the human rights of migrants, the dominant focus overall remains on reducing irregular migration. Irregular (commonly called ‘illegal’) crossings proved remarkably resilient during the pandemic in comparison to other migration flows. Frontex reported that in 2021 the number of irregular crossings was the highest since 2017. Amid this increase, and the perennial concern over a new ‘migrant crisis,’ the meeting of EU interior ministers in Lithuania emphasised stronger borders above other concerns.

“This conference needs to send the message that Europe’s hard land and sea borders are ready to protect them,” said Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi outside the meeting. “Migration should take place through legal means, not through illegal entries and through smuggling networks.”

The loudest calls for action at the meeting, from interior ministers of member states such as Italy, Poland, and Greece, were to increase EU border enforcement and crack down on smugglers’ networks. European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson appears receptive to those calls., Though Johansson deplored the alleged pushbacks, she herself affirmed the need to prevent migrants from reaching Europe. In particular, she emphasised policy to prevent people from embarking on perilous journeys to begin with: “We can't wait until we have desperate migrants at our borders. We need to act sooner."

Such an aim would presumably be pursued through enhanced border externalisation programmes in partnership with sending countries, a tool the EU is well experienced with. Though Commissioner Johansson reiterated the “long-standing” position of the EU Commission, that funds should not be used to build more walls and fences on EU borders, this does not necessarily preclude funds being used to limit the mobility of people in other regions.

Johansson also emphasised the need for the EU to increase its capability to send rejected asylum seekers back where they came from. Migrant returns have indeed stalled during the pandemic, but in keeping with the Vilnius meetings’ emphasis on strong borders over human rights, the calls to send more people back comes at the expense of serious concerns about migrants’ rights, as EU deportations often subject people to mortal danger and destitution when they are returned.


(c) 2022, Forbes


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