Wednesday 17 April 2019

The new European Border and Coast Guard: Do increased powers come with enhanced accountability?

Mariana Gkliati, PhD researcher at Leiden University, working on the accountability of Frontex for human rights violations during its operations

With the political agreement on the new Regulation reached at the beginning of April, approved by the European Parliament today, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, is now closer than ever to its original conception as a fully-fledged European Border Police Corps. The new law, with its enhanced rules on removal to non-EU countries, will be approved in parallel to changes to the EU's visa code aimed at readmitting more irregular migrants to non-EU countries, discussed here.

The Commission’s proposal was presented in September 2018 and was agreed hastily within only six months, as the goal was for an agreement to be reached within the current Parliament before the European Parliament elections in May 2019. The new agency is expected to become operational this summer.

Moving towards full operational capacity the agency will have its own equipment and personnel, combined with an impressive budget, and is vested with an even broader mandate in border surveillance, returns, and cooperation with third countries.

The ambitions of the Commission have been accepted almost in their entirety. Notably, however, the proposal regarding controlled centres, where relevant EU agencies and participating states would cooperate in enforcing rapid procedures for either asylum or return, and the power of the agency to coordinate return operations from one third country to another did not survive the trilateral negotiations.

The new Regulation wants to address two main challenges. Firstly, it aims towards greater autonomy and operational effectiveness. The heavy reliance of the agency in the voluntary contributions of member states in staff and equipment resulted in persistent gaps that impacted the effectiveness of the agency and its flexibility to deploy border guard teams in a short time-frame.

Secondly, the 2019 EBCG Regulation comes in response to the call of the European Parliament for full implementation of the  IBM Strategy, regarding European Integrated Border Management, which is considered vital for the functioning of the Schengen area. Improving the effectiveness and capabilities of the agency to achieve higher impact levels, while reducing the hold of member states over its operations, and increased cooperation with third states to promote European border management and return standards, while attaining to fundamental rights norms are key components of the IBM Strategy.

This blog focuses on three of the most significant changes brought by the new Regulation from a fundamental rights angle and looks into whether the expanded mandate and powers are accompanied by an equally strong accountability regime. For a more detailed look into the overall changes, you may refer to an earlier blog on this next phase of the EBCG.

The agency’s own operational arm

Currently, Frontex joint operations rely solely on the contributions of member states. Now, the agency acquires its own operational arm: a EBCG standing corps with broad executive powers. Starting with 5.000 operational staff in 2021, the standing corps will be fully operational by 2027 counting 10.000 staff members under the exclusive and direct control of Frontex.

Moreover, the agency can still make use of temporary deployments and long-term secondments from member states, while a rapid reaction pool of 3.000 members will be at its immediate disposal for rapid border interventions. 
The standing corps will have executive powers similar to the border guards and return specialists of the member states, including competence to perform identity checks and authorise or refuse entry.

Here belongs also the increased capacity for the agency to acquire and operate its own air, maritime and land assets, including aircrafts and vessels. The Commission intends that the agency’s own equipment “should ultimately become the backbone of [its] operational deployments with additional contributions of Member States to be called upon in exceptional circumstances.”

Frontex driving returns

One of the most highlighted changes concerns the enhancement of the agency’s mandate on returns of irregularly staying third country nationals to their countries of origin, which the new Regulation makes a top priority. Frontex is vested with a broad mandate in pre-return and return-related activities, including providing its own return escorts and return monitors and preparing the return decisions.

Such expansive powers increase the possibility for Frontex to be held responsible for fundamental rights violations during its returns, especially since such return flights will be conducted in the agency’s own aircrafts, by the agency’s own escorts.

The inherent sensitivity of forced returns to physical abuse and violations of the right to non-refoulement calls for increased accountability, in the meaning of more possibilities for the agency to answer for the impact of its activities upon fundamental rights.

Forced returns monitoring is a crucial safeguard during return operations. As a step towards that direction, the new Regulation allows the Council of Europe’s Committee on the Prevention of Torture (CPT) to conduct visits to monitor the situation on board.

However, the EBCG Regulation does not abide by the safeguards set down in the Return Directive (Art. 8(6)), which calls for an effective monitoring system. This refers in particular to the independence of the monitoring mechanism, requiring that the authority that carries out the returns is not the same as the one in charge of monitoring the compliance with fundamental rights. The EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) has suggested that the same standards should apply to the agency and has suggested in its report to the European Parliament the involvement of an international body with human rights monitoring expertise. Nevertheless, no such provision for an independent monitoring body with relevant expertise and sufficient resources is made in the Regulation.

Finally, the role of the agency in drafting the return decision which would be subsequently issued by the member states raises its own fundamental rights concerns. Even though the ultimate authority for the return decision rests with the member state, such powers may lead to the informal beyond mandate influence of the agency. This would not be unprecedented. Such concerns have been expressed by NGOs as well as the EU Ombudsman with respect to the extent of the involvement of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in assessing asylum applications in Greek hotspots, as in practice the national authorities rely disproportionately on the agency’s decision.

Besides the obvious questions of breach of mandate, state sovereignty, and jurisdictional independence that this raises, mistakes in the issuing of such preliminary decisions may lead to a violation of the rights to family life and non-refoulement or the rights of the child.

The FRA has brought this new power into question, wondering how Frontex deployed staff, which typically originate from different member states and will not be familiar with the national legal framework or the host country language, would be able to ensure compliance with the fundamental rights safeguards emanating from the Return Directive as these have been transposed into national law.

Art. 49(1) of the EBCG Regulation provides that the agency’s return activities will be carried out in respect of fundamental rights. However, the concrete safeguards issued in the Regulation are not adequate to guarantee such protection.

In the centre of extensive data sharing

The information sharing aspect of the agency’s work is also significantly strengthened along with the creation of new specialised structures and mechanisms, while EUROSUR is encompassed in the EBCG Regulation aiming at improving its functioning, and enlarging its scope to cover most IBM components.

In the context of its new powers, Frontex can exchange information with EU agencies, including Europol as well as third countries. This, combined with the interoperability-related competencies of Frontex, creates a quite broad mandate for the processing and especially the sharing of data both within the EU and outside, involving EU institutions, agencies, and law enforcement authorities.

Moreover, as part of the agency’s expansive mandate on returns, Frontex is tasked with developing and operating a centralised return management platform for processing all information. This centralised platform allows for an automated transfer of data.

The information processed in the centralised platform and also shared with third states may include personal data, biographic data or passenger lists, as well as information obtained during the personal asylum interview. This can prove detrimental for the safety of people seeking protection, while it would undermine the trust that is necessary for the asylum interview to allow applicants to present the grounds for their applications.

Nevertheless, this is not accompanied by appropriate safeguards for data protection, as these are suggested by the FRA, with the risk that the Regulation ‘may be perceived as giving the green light for a blanket sharing with the third country of all information that may be considered relevant for returns.’

To the contrary, safeguards seem to even be reduced in the EBCG Regulation, as it fails to correctly transfer the guarantee that is enshrined in the EUROSUR Regulation (Art. 20(5)), that any exchange of data that can be used to identify persons with a pending request for international protection or who are at serious risk of being subjected to torture or other fundamental rights violations are prohibited. In the EBCG Regulation this safeguard is only limited to personal data (Art. 90(4)). Other types of data, that is not covered by this safeguard may still reveal to the state of persecution information regarding a person’s political, religious or philosophical beliefs, or their attempt to flee to the EU and request asylum. This may expose the person or their family to retaliation measures, or allow the country of origin to stop them from reaching safety.

All in all, the new powers of Frontex regarding data processing and sharing can have a major impact on the rights of persons, beyond the right to the protection of personal data.

Steps towards increased accountability

The most significant changes that reflect the increased accountability of the agency in the light of its new powers concern the European Parliament, the Fundamental Rights Officer and the individual complaints mechanism.

The new EBCG Regulation takes steps towards increased political accountability, involving the European Parliament and national parliaments. To ensure effective scrutiny by the democratic institutions, the Regulation introduces greater inter-parliamentary cooperation.

The agency’s management board is required to attend joint meetings of the European and national parliaments, while it could – not should – invite an expert of the European Parliament to attend its meetings.

Finally, the European Parliament has now a new role with respect to cooperation agreements conducted with third countries. It will be informed before a working arrangement with a third country is concluded about the parties and the content of the agreement, but the agreement itself will not be shared. Similarly, when negotiating a status agreement with a third country, the Commission will make a fundamental rights assessment relevant not to the whole country, but only to the areas covered by the agreement, of which assessment the European Parliament will be informed.

Moreover, the role of the agency’s Fundamental Rights Officer (FRO) is enhanced as she acquires a preventive function, being tasked with providing opinions upon all operational plans, as well as pilot projects and technical assistance projects in third countries. Furthermore, Frontex liaison officers are tasked to cooperate with her. What is more important is that FRO is tasked with publishing an annual report regarding the protection of fundamental rights in the agency’s activities, which shall also include information about the complaints mechanism and the implementation of the Fundamental Rights Strategy.

In the light of her already increased mandate, the workload of the FRO has significantly increased without a proportionate increase in the necessary staff and resources, so that it has become increasingly difficult for her to fulfil her tasks. The agency recruited in November 2018 additional staff to support the FRO, but this only includes junior staff. Art. 107 (2a) of the Regulation promises that the FRO will be provided with necessary resources and personnel, however, without making concrete commitments, like in the case of the number of border guards.

Finally, the crown jewel of administrative accountability, the individual complaints mechanism introduced in 2016, becomes all the more relevant with the expansion of the agency’s activities in third countries where victims of violations do not have access to EU judicial remedies due to lack of jurisdiction. Notably, the reach of the complaints mechanism is now expanded to cover operational activities in third countries.

Moreover, the FRO will draft a standardised complaints form in an effort to enhance the accessibility of the procedure. She will also recommend to the Executive Director the appropriate follow-up when the complaint concerns a staff member of the agency, which has been specified in the Regulation to include ‘referral to civil or criminal justice procedures’.

This, however, still remains in the discretion of the Executive Director, as the Regulation does not introduce requirements as to the appropriate follow-up. More importantly no remedy is made available against the admissibility decision of the FRO or the decision of the Executive Director. Moreover, the mechanism remains highly inaccessible to ‘new arrivals’, including unaccompanied minors, while the FRO was not allowed to initiate a complaint ex officio.

Although these changes are certainly a step to the right direction in terms of increased accountability, they nevertheless do not correspond to the expansion of powers and competencies of the agency in any of the areas of its activity discussed here.

In particular, the role of the European and national parliaments remains fairly limited to be able to ensure effective political accountability, while, unless the FRO is provided with sufficient staff and resources, she will not be able to fulfil her preventive role. Finally, there is still ample room to be covered for the complaints mechanism to meet the international standards of accessibility, institutional independence, and adequate capacity for evidence-based investigation.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 26
JHA4: chapter I:3
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