By Vittoria Meissner
In January 2017, the recently reformed European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCG) Frontex started a pool of return experts, in order to support and expedite the return of migrants. The establishment of the pool is part of the larger reform that in October 2016 officially transformed the old EU border agency into the new EBCG through Regulation (EU) 2016/1624. The EBCG builds on the legacy of Frontex, which has now an expanded mandate and increased resources at its disposal. During negotiations prior to the adoption of the Regulation, the European Commission particularly supported an enhanced role of the Agency. As a result, today Frontex should be better equipped, in order to fulfil its expanded mandate effectively and meet challenges at the EU external borders.
However, are these changes adequate to ensure efficient solutions and avoid future failures such as the EU poor response to the 2015-2016 refugee crisis?
What are the tasks of the new pool of return experts?
Regulation (EU) 2016/1624 strengthened the Agency’s mandate varying substantially its tasks and capabilities. At present, the new Frontex is able to deploy border and coast guard officers from its own rapid reaction pool of at least 1500 officers and to purchase its own equipment, which it should acquire alone or in co-ownership with member states. Moreover, the new mandate envisages a „return pool“, composed of experts that the Agency can draw from EU member states and Schengen associated countries. The new return pool consists of 690 experts (return monitors, escorts, and specialists), whose task is to identify irregular migrants and coordinate return operations, including cooperation with consular authorities of the returnees’ countries of origin. In occasion of the EBCG’s first anniversary, Frontex published a Review of its past twelve months as a reformed Agency. The Review specifies that whereas return escorts support national escort officers during coordinated return operations, return monitors carry out independent monitoring to ensure compliance with fundamental rights.
The Agency’s performance
According to Frontex’s Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri the establishment of the return expert pool represents a pivotal step to enhance the Agency’s performance. In one of his recent statements, the Director also said that the EBCG is ready to strengthen its role in return operations. During such operations, the pool should offer support to national authorities of the EU, especially in Greece and Italy, since both countries struggle with record numbers of refugees and migrants.
Whereas in 2015 Frontex returned approximately 3500 people, Agence Europe reported that in 2016 the Agency coordinated the return of 10,700 migrants in 232 return operations. So far, in 2017 Frontex coordinated the return of 9575 persons in 222 return operations. Besides coordinating joint return operations involving at least two member states, under its new mandate the Agency has also begun to assist member states individually in national return operations.
Are return operations a sustainable solution?
Between December 2016 and February 2017, large protests took place across Germany against the obligatory repatriation − often referred to as “collective deportation” − of Afghan refugees whose asylum requests failed. These events have raised the political and moral question, whether return operations represent an enduring and efficient solution. In December 2016, Frontex covered the costs of one of numerous contested return flights from Frankfurt to Kabul. Return operations to Afghanistan have been particularly disputed, since large regions of the country are still unsafe and many afghan provinces are witnessing violent battles and terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, detailed data on recent return operations are quite rare to find.
A recent document issued by the Commission on the development of a credible EU return policy stressed that Frontex should be transformed into a “true operational EU return hub”, in order for its new return tools to be fully operationalized. The question remains open whether expert coordinated return operations actually solve the challenges that the EU has faced since the latest refugee crisis.
Vittoria Meissner has worked as a research assistant and PhD candidate at the Chair of European and Global Governance at the Bavarian School of Public Policy at the Technical University of Munich since July 2016.