Frontex accelerates its activity to become the logistical and financial arm of the European Union in the return of immigrants in an irregular situation. Even in the midst of the COVID pandemic, with the consequent health and travel restrictions, the European border control agency carried out 8,239 forced and voluntary returns in the first half of the year. It is the highest semester data in its history, according to a reserved report from the agency to which EL PAÍS has had access.
The record, although held at the agency’s headquarters in Warsaw, continues to put black on white the limited capacity of the EU to execute returns, one of the pillars of the new European policy, consisting of limiting the permanence in Community territory exclusively to the that they have the right to asylum and accelerate the expulsions of the rest of the migrants arriving in Europe. Thus, Brussels seeks to tighten the entry ways for immigrants in an irregular situation through a strict control of its limits led by Frontex, for which it expects to reach 10,000 agents compared to the current thousand. In addition, it promotes the brake on immigration in countries of origin and transit such as Morocco or Turkey, as the backbone of its policy. All this within the framework of an increase in tension due to the crisis orchestrated by Belarus when it moved migrants to the border with Poland.
The returns figure in the Frontex report represents almost twice the number of returns than in the same period in 2020, marked by a strong slowdown in international mobility. And it is 9% more than in the first half of 2019, the year with the most expulsions from the agency. They are, however, small numbers compared to the migrants in an irregular situation that the EU is unable to repatriate to their countries of origin. Despite the money and diplomacy invested, community partners only return a third of all immigrants ordered to leave the territory, some 400,000 every year for the last decade.
Brussels has been considering for years how to eject more, and Frontex – created in 2004 – wants to gain the trust of the Member States to increase the percentage of returns it organizes and finances. Most operations continue to be carried out by countries, and the agency is trying to gain ground in that task – in 2019 it only handled 10% of total returns from the EU, and 17% in 2020-.
The agency has a budget for this task of 50 million euros, although it does not always manage to spend it. In the reserved report, the agency remains optimistic: “When current covid restrictions are relaxed, forced returns are expected to resume fully and Frontex will play an even bigger role in assisting, with an unprecedented number of returns ”.
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Behind the increase in returns in this first half of the year is an unusually high number of voluntary returns. One in four repatriated by Frontex returned to their country of origin on their own initiative. The agency explains the novel weight of voluntary returns as follows: “These returns are generally easier to implement, since no escorts are needed.” In addition, the agency adds, the resistance to undergo COVID tests to avoid repatriation, stopped the execution of forced returns.
Frontex’s mandate has not stopped expanding, despite the challenges and investigations it faces for alleged inefficiency and alleged violations of migrant rights in certain operations by ignoring complaints of hot returns by Greece in the Aegean Sea.
In the coming years, its budget is expected to increase from 460 million euros in 2020 to 900 million. The plan also requires that in 2027 it has those 10,000 of its own agents. A political and budgetary expansion that the European Court of Auditors questioned in a report last June. The EU auditor warned that the agency was not “efficient enough”.
The strategy of strengthening himself as an executor of returns helps him justify his growing power and budget, but his relationship with the countries is not always easy. Added to the lack of trust between the national authorities of some Member States and the agency’s officials are logistical and coordination issues. In the report, Frontex expresses its frustration that countries do not always share information and the lack of flexibility when it comes to promoting joint operations, in which at least two Member States participate, instead of betting on their own operations.
National return actions give countries more autonomy, but they have a problem: not all immigrants finally get on the plane, either due to a Covid contagion, because they file an asylum application at the last minute or because they escape before boarding. . In 2018, 43% of the airplane seats planned for returns were left empty, according to the European Court of Auditors.
Before the pandemic, the two types of operations occupied a similar weight, but since last year the agency has accused a “disproportion” between one and the other. Frontex supported three times more national operations than joint operations in 2021. “Frontex continues to encourage Member States to open their return flights to other countries. Joint operations are generally cheaper ”, warns the agency.
Spain is among the countries that have requested the agency’s support the least. This first half of the year only returned 253 people on flights supported by Frontex. The low number is not surprising; Madrid maintains a very modest collaboration. In 2019, before any border restriction, Spain returned 11,153 immigrants and only about 400 returned with Frontex support, according to data obtained by TV3. They did it mainly on flights to Albania, Georgia, Colombia and Ecuador. Madrid also used the agency to return Malians who had arrived in the Canary Islands to Mauritania, operations that ended up suspended because it involved sending potential war refugees to a third country.
One third of returns, on account of Germany
A third of Frontex returns in the first half of the year (2,742) were made on behalf of Germany, which took advantage of the agency’s support to carry out only forced returns in this period. Collaboration with Frontex “depends a lot on the strategy of the national authorities,” say agency sources. “The numbers are explained because Germany is much more effective in its return policies, and in the resolution and execution of expulsion proceedings than other countries,” maintains a former high-ranking European official. “Germany is one of the most responsible countries for returns. However, if Frontex supports it, it should make sure that no mistakes are made, that all procedures have been carried out and that they return to the correct country, ”warns MEP Tineke Strik, a member of the working group that has investigated, by phone. the work of Frontex.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.