Frontex: When great power comes with no responsibility

Is the European Union border security agency really using its immense powers ‘responsibly’?

Men transfer body bags carrying migrants who died after their boat capsized in the open sea off Greece, onboard a Hellenic Coast Guard vessel at the port of Kalamata, Greece, June 14, 2023. REUTERS/Stelios Misinas
Men transfer body bags carrying people who died after the vessel they were in sank off Greece, from a Greek coastguard vessel at the port of Kalamata, Greece, on June 14, 2023 [Stelios Misinas/Reuters]

On June 14, just after midnight, a vessel carrying about 750 people, including many children, sank off the coast of Pylos, Greece. Weeks later, most of its passengers are still missing and the 100 or so survivors are stuck in a camp in Malakasa, Greece where they have limited freedoms and questionable psychological assistance.

Long before it sank, starting from 9:47am on June 13, the overcrowded vessel was under the surveillance of the European Union’s border security agency, Frontex.

In a statement issued soon after the vessel sank, the agency said it is “shocked and saddened by the tragic events that unfolded off the coast of Greece”, but refused to accept any blame for what happened.

It said it provided Greek authorities with information about the vessel’s condition and speed “immediately” after a Frontex plane spotted it “inside the Greek search and rescue region in international waters”. It did not comment on why the Greek coastguard, or indeed a Frontex ship, did not immediately rescue the vessel, and tried to put the blame for the hundreds of lives lost solely on “people smugglers”.

“People smugglers have once again trifled with human lives,” it said. “Our thoughts go out to the families of the victims.”

The actions of the Greek coastguard, which reportedly outright refused to tow the vessel, are currently under investigation. But Frontex, which admits to surveilling the doomed vessel for many hours before it began taking water, also has questions to answer about its role – or lack thereof – in the rescue operation.

Frontex is the EU’s best-funded agency whose budget for 2022 was around $823m. Yet, as stated in a damning Human Rights Watch report in 2021, it repeatedly fails “to safeguard people against serious human rights violations at the EU’s external borders”.

On the day of the “tragedy”, while people on the vessel were sending desperate SOS messages to Alarm Phone, I was with a group of scholars and journalists at the Frontex headquarters in Warsaw, Poland. The visit was part of the  “Border in Focus” seminar organised by the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, Hamburg, within the scholarship programme, “Beyond Borders”.

After entering the tall, glass office building the agency is in, we were taken to a meeting room on the 14th floor to meet Frontex representatives.

We later learned that the operation room where Frontex executives monitored the “tragedy” in the Mediterranean was just a couple of floors below the room we were in. Our hosts likely knew what was going on. Throughout our two-hour meeting, however, they did not mention the still unfolding catastrophe. Instead, we were told about the “many misconceptions” people allegedly have about the organisation due to a lack of “research and understanding”.

Our hosts informed us that people (including many of us in that room) have been using the wrong terminology when speaking about Frontex activities due to their lack of knowledge or general ignorance. We were told, for example, that we should use the word “return” instead of “deportation” when talking about the tens of thousands of people Frontex removes from EU territories every year. We were also informed that we should not say Frontex agents are “above the law” just because there are agreements in place to protect them from being taken to court in non-EU countries where they conduct operations. “European courts are much better than the courts in these countries,” our hosts kindly explained before further lecturing us on “European standards” and human rights.

The agency’s entire presentation was framed around an adage popularised by Marvel superhero, Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.” One Frontex official, determined to communicate all the supposed virtues of the organisation, repeated the mantra several times during our short meeting.

Of course, there is no sign that Frontex is making any real effort to use the immense power it has over tens of thousands of vulnerable people on the move responsibly.

In fact, when we were listening to the Frontex representatives’ diatribe against “misconceptions” and sales pitch about “power and responsibility”, the people being slowly swallowed by the Mediterranean Sea were likely not even the only ones dying avoidable deaths under the watch of the agency.

For example, during our meeting in Warsaw an activist in Serbia, where Frontex is very active, posted on Facebook about the recent death of an unnamed person, presumed to be a refugee, on train tracks near the country’s border with Bulgaria. According to Serbian activists and media, this is a common occurrence. They say authorities often find bodies in these border areas and bury them anonymously, without even attempting to figure out their identities. Frontex has access to these areas and can easily ensure the safety of people on the move there. But it chooses to do nothing.

Also on June 13, while the ship was slowly sinking off the coast of Greece under the watchful eyes of Frontex agents, a man from Afghanistan was buried in the Bosnian city of Tuzla. He had died as he attempted to cross the river marking the border between Bosnia and Croatia. He got to have a funeral only because his brother survived the incident, and with the help of volunteers from both countries, found his body. We know many others who lost their lives trying to cross that river were not as lucky. Bosnian border towns are riddled with anonymous graves belonging to people who died while on the move to find a better, safer life in the EU.

Frontex representatives did not mention any of these “tragedies” during our meeting. As they talked about “power” and “responsibility”, they did not care to discuss the powerful agency’s responsibility towards people it is desperately working to keep outside the borders of the EU.

Frontex, and the governments behind it, have powerful tools in their hands that, if used responsibly, can prevent the Mediterranean Sea from becoming a mass grave for those who were denied safe entry into the EU.

If they believed in responsibility, EU member states would spend the hundreds of millions they waste on building walls, investing in surveillance, and turning Europe into an impenetrable fortress instead on helping create a world in which everyone can live safely and with dignity. If they believed in responsibility, rather than introducing more and more draconian measures to deter “undesirables” from reaching the EU, they would focus on saving lives. If they believed in responsibility, instead of pushing refugees into dangerous situations, leaving them drowning in the sea and lost in forests, they would be working to eliminate the conditions that force these people to embark on such dangerous journeys in the first place.

Sadly, those with power show no intention of acting responsibly – the criminalisation of migration has become normal, and the never-ending “fight” against so-called “illegals”, “potential terrorists” and “rapists” is being used to justify even further fortification of the EU.

It does not have to be this way. If the mighty border security agency starts practising what it preaches, and starts using its powers responsibly, the European Union can become a true haven for all those in need – a place where human life is valued more than borders, documents and low migration numbers.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.