Frontex director replies to Ombudsman: 'We're not the European rescue agency'

Hans Leijtens, the executive director of Frontex, replied to the findings of the European Ombudsman.
Hans Leijtens, the executive director of Frontex, replied to the findings of the European Ombudsman. Copyright Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Jorge LiboreiroMaria Psara
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Hans Leijtens, the executive director of Frontex, responded on Tuesday to the findings of the European Ombudsman, who found severe shortcomings in the agency's mandate, operations and relations with member states.

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The report, published last week, concluded that Frontex is overly dependent on the consent of national authorities and is therefore ill-equipped to uphold European Union values and save lives at sea. The office of Emily O'Reilly also recommended the agency should "terminate, withdraw or suspend its activities" in countries that persistently disregard their search-and-rescue obligations or violate fundamental rights.

Otherwise, O'Reilly warned, the EU risks becoming "complicit" in migrant deaths.

On Tuesday, almost a week after the report's publication, Hans Leijtens met members of the press in Brussels and delivered his first on-camera response to the findings.

"I understand the logic the Ombudsman is following. I do not really agree with her on a number of things," Leijtens said. "We are not the European Search and Rescue Agency. We are the European Border and Coast Guard Agency."

The director stressed the agency's "primary duty" was to secure the EU's external borders by deploying agents on the ground and assisting member states, meaning its core task is to "search" rather than to "rescue." Last year, the agency spotted 2,000 sightings of irregular migration via surveillance airplanes and drones, he said.

Under current rules, Frontex is empowered to alert coordination centres of potential distress situations and, if necessary, assist in emergencies at sea. But this assistance can only go ahead if the agency obtains the explicit consent of a country. If it does not, Frontex has no choice but to remain on the sidelines of the operation without first-hand intervention. Additionally, Leijtens noted the boats managed by Frontex were mainly "coastal vessels" not meant for search-and-rescue at high sea.

Despite the practical limitations, Frontex is still closely involved in managing flows of irregular migration: the agency estimates it helped rescue 43,000 people at sea throughout 24 operations in 2023.

"Our task is based on securing borders," Leijtens said. "But there's no doubt that if we have to choose between assessing whether this is a security issue or saving lives, we'll always save lives and then deal with the security issue later."

But it's the episodes that end in tragedy that thrust the agency under the intense scrutiny of lawmakers, civil society and journalists. Last year, Frontex faced tough questions over its response to two deadly shipwrecks: one in February, near Calabria, Italy, which left at least 94 people dead, and another in June, when the Adriana, a fishing boat overcrowded with asylum seekers, capsized off the coast of Messenia, Greece. More than 600 people were either confirmed or presumed dead.

The Ombudsman's inquiry was launched in the aftermath of this second incident. The report says Greece did not reply to Frontex's alerts on "four separate occasions" during the tragedy and criticises the agency for failing to take a "more active role" while being "fully aware" of the accusations of pushbacks and systematic abuse that have for years surrounded the Greek Coast Guard.

Frontex has 626 officers in the Greek mainland and islands, together with 32 patrol cars, nine vessels, and two aircraft, the largest deployment of any member state.

Asked about the possible suspension of activities in Greece, in line with the watchdog's recommendation, Leijtens trod with caution and said the question was not "black or white." The agency, he argued, is "heavily dependent on what we know and what we know is being processed in the so-called serious incidents reports." These reports are submitted to the Fundamental Rights Officer, an independent body tasked with ensuring the agency's compliance with EU rules and values.

"Last year we had 37 of these reports. And a majority is with Greece, with Italy and with Bulgaria. But it's an incident report. It's not something that has been proven. It's a signal that arrived to us," the director told journalists.

In-depth investigations and criminal proceedings can only be launched by national authorities, as Frontex lacks jurisdiction. A decision to pull out of a country should be based on these probes, Leijtens said, regardless of how long they take to conclude. Greece is still looking into last year's bombshell report by the New York Times, which exposes graphic evidence and gripping testimonies of pushbacks at the border.

"I'm very impatient here, frankly speaking, but I have to wait for them," he said.

Even if the outcome of these investigations were to be damning, the agency might not necessarily take the radical step of cutting all ties, the director added. Instead, Frontex could suspend co-financing and specific projects, or ask the accused country to implement "appropriate measures" and prevent the wrongdoing from repeating itself.

The suspension is "not something that can be done overnight," Leijtens said. "This really needs some consideration and some justification."

First established in 2004 with a limited mandate, Frontex has gradually grown in power, resources and notoriety until becoming one of the most prominent bodies in the bloc. The agency is expected to have about 10,000 officers and a €1-billion budget by 2027. A comprehensive reform of the EU's migration and asylum policy, which Leijtens described as a "paradigm shift," is set to further augment Frontex's role.

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