Frontex, the EU, and commitments to human rights

On June 14th, a sea vessel carrying an estimated 750 refugees and migrants capsized in the Mediterranean. To date, just over 100 have been rescued alive, with the remainder either missing or confirmed dead. In the hours before it capsized, the Greek Coast Guard identified the vessel and contacted the smugglers that had organized the passage. It is currently under investigation whether the Coast Guard attempted to tow the vessel and what caused it to capsize, but the loss of life in this incident represents just a small part of the tapestry of tragedy represented by the EU’s conduct in the Mediterranean in the last decade. This conduct is not limited to the Greek Coast Guard as we have seen Italian border forces, and the EU’s border patrol agency Frontex engage in migrant pushbacks and detention that demonstrate a pattern of anti-migrant conduct that runs counter to their purported commitment to ensuring human rights.


The EU established Frontex in 2004 as an agency to provide additional border support to EU member states. Since those early days, Frontex has ballooned from a relatively modest endeavour with a €6 million budget to a worldwide agency with a budget of over €750 million, working arrangements with 18 countries, and additional agreements to provide resources and technical assistance to others. As a result, Frontex is the preeminent border agency operating in Europe, the Mediterranean, and North Africa.

The agency claims that it “strictly adheres to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the European Convention on Human Rights, and relevant instruments of international and human rights law, including the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol”, but from its inception has been taking action counter to this claim. In 2007, the British Refugee Council and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles criticised the work that Frontex was doing outside of the EU as hindering the ability of asylum-seekers to claim the protections to which they are entitled.

In 2013, hundreds of migrants died in a shipwreck off the coast of Sicily, sparking the EU and Frontex to increase surveillance capacity in the Mediterranean. The Lampedusa Tragedy should have served as the ‘never again’ moment for the EU, but the latest tragedy and the tens of thousands of lives lost in the Mediterranean because of the EU’s deterrence policies prove the steps taken to protect lives are inadequate at best and murderous at worst. In response to the increased surveillance and operational capacity in the Mediterranean, smugglers began overloading and under-fueling vessels, depending on search and rescue teams and Frontex to carry migrants and refugees to their destinations.

Responding to this evolution in strategy, Frontex and other EU states along the Mediterranean began engaging in pushbacks and cooperation with border agencies in North Africa—especially Libya—in order to ensure that migrants and refugees never make it to EU soil. Despite a European Court of Human Rights ruling in 2012 that migrants should not be returned to Libya in order to protect their safety, Frontex has utilized its comprehensive network of aerial surveillance in the Mediterranean to aid the Libyan Coast Guard in its efforts to capture vessels attempting the crossing. As a result, tens of thousands of migrants and refugees have been captured, brought to Libya, and detained in camps that are well-reported to routinely violate fundamental human rights.

In 2022, a leaked report made to members of the EU parliament outlined a pattern of serious human rights abuses carried out by Frontex, the Greek Coast Guard, and others that included pushbacks of sea vessels and a concerted effort to cover up these actions. As a result, Frontex executive director Fabrice Leggeri resigned his post and EU officials were happy to be able to lay the blame for the horrendous human rights record at his feet, ignoring the institutional problems that underlie the broader border control policy.

Frontex police man standing beside border police car

Frontex officers at the Bulgarian-Turkey border. The agency is due to expand its staff to 10,000 by 2027. (The Conversation)

The “commitment to human rights”

As the recent tragedy involving the Greek Coast Guard indicates, it is largely business as usual at Frontex, with extensive surveillance and cooperation with non-EU countries which hinders refugees and asylum seekers from seeking the protections to which they have an internationally recognized right. For over a decade, the EU parliament, European Court of Human Rights, and member states have been claiming a deep respect for and desire to protect the rights of migrants while its border control agency has seen astronomical increases in funding and authority while committing violations of international human rights law.

EU officials have access to the same evidence that we do: harsher border controls contribute to more dangerous crossing attempts, attempted crossings in the Mediterranean are increasing again after a small dip during the Covid-19 pandemic, and geopolitical instability in the MENA region and elsewhere means that the current migration crisis is unlikely to improve in the near future. The last two years have seen modest reforms at Frontex including the adoption of a ‘fundamental rights action plan’ and the appointment of a new executive director who took the post vowing to protect human rights, but the policy of border lockdowns and cooperation with non-EU countries without rights safeguards in place is still guiding the direction of the agency.

In response to the June 14th tragedy, Frontex began an investigation into the practices of the Greek Coast Guard, and rumours of a cessation of cooperation between the Greek government and Frontex have begun circulating. Given the recent history of the EU’s border policy, this outrage on the part of Frontex is curious. And while holding national authorities to account for their human rights record is key, the EU cannot eradicate human rights abuses done to refugees and asylum seekers while maintaining their draconian border policy.

The commitment that the institutions of the European Union have to protecting human rights often exist in name only, and every attempt is made to create loopholes and exceptions to escape the obligations imposed by this commitment. Frontex, operating as the most well-funded agency of the EU, is as clear a demonstration of where the real political will of the member states is. The consequences of this political will, as always, are felt most acutely by those in the most precarious situations. Refugees and asylum seekers, already fleeing unimaginable circumstances, are met with monumental challenges as they seek safety and security. As long as Frontex continues to operate in its current form and under its current mandate, the European Union cannot possibly be said to care for the protection of the fundamental human rights of refugees and asylum seekers.