Protecting Borders and Basic Rights: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Klaus Rösler, director of operations for EU border agency Frontex, on new migration routes and border protection

27/11/2012 interview with Klaus Rösler

DGAP Interview, November 27, 2012

Category: Government and Society, Migration, Europe, Geographical areas of Europe, Mediterranean Sea/Mediterranean area

Over the past few months, the influx of refugees in the Mediterranean region has intensified while immigration routes have become more and more unpredictable. “What distresses us is the uncertainty of how the flow of migration to the EU will develop,” said Klaus Rösler of Frontex. In a DGAP interview, he talks about how the agency’s new regulations will ease the coordination of border protection on the EU’s external borders and improve the protection of basic rights.

Foto: Frontex, CC BY

A year ago, the EU expanded the legal and working basis of your agency. How has this improved Frontex’s operational command?

The expanded provisions have strengthened Frontex’s role in the coordination of border protection operations. Frontex and EU member states now develop operations together, which makes them more binding for both sides. This will formally grant Frontex more power and ensure the implementation of agreed-upon operations – which will allow the agency to put pressure on member states if necessary, for example if they do not carry out necessary patrols. Today, Frontex plays a more active role and can better enforce its duties.

In addition, our revised mandate allows us to better protect basic rights. But the core of our mission remains unchanged: On the basis of risk analysis, we will coordinate border protection operations and support member states so they can protect their borders with a more comprehensive approach. In other words, we will help improve cooperation among participating national agencies such as police and customs. Lastly, we will promote goal-oriented and harmonized training in member states.

Border security is traditionally a matter for member states – but Frontex has been responsible for the EU’s external borders for a few years now. Has the agency’s unclear legal position strained your work?

In the seven years that Frontex has existed, acceptance of our work by EU member states and other Schengen countries has continued to grow. This is proof of long-standing cooperation. Member states continue to take part in our plans, such as in recruitment operations or further training.

Responsibilities are clearly distributed: member states are responsible for monitoring borders and border control. Frontex plays a coordinating function and must ensure that collective operations are put into effect. This responsibility has been strengthened by the new regulation – but member states’ legal and tactical responsibilities for operations remain basically unchanged.

Frontex operations rely on member state capabilities such as national agencies and equipment. How much progress has Frontex made from being a coordinated body to becoming a single EU border protection force?

Our main responsibility in the future will remain coordination. Border protection is a national responsibility that member states will not just give up. But Frontex missions will provide added value for member states: we implement the experience and expertise of 30 countries and a number of agencies for the benefit of everyone.

The new provisions help us to improve our coordination mechanisms. While border protection officials were previously only dispatched for individual operations, the agency can now choose from a virtual pool of personnel that have been trained by member states to take part in Frontex operations – the so-called “European Border Guard Teams” – for a period of six months and can deploy them to different hot spots in agreement with the member states.

Since many experts from different member states work together on Frontex operations, a common understanding of our duty has naturally formed – one could describe it as a border protection team spirit.

Some member states have threatened to re-introduce internal border controls within the EU. This would jeopardize one of the great achievements of European integration: freedom of travel within the EU. Does the preservation of the Schengen area play a role in Frontex’s work?

For starters, a modern understanding of the freedom of movement means that border controls should make it easier for travelers who have good intentions to move around. Thus, it does not aim to prevent movement. But it should act as a filter against illegal activities.

Control-free travel within the Schengen area and the securing of the EU’s external borders are in fact closely connected. Frontex sees itself as a balancing force for the abolition of border controls in accordance with the Schengen Agreement. The abandonment of border controls within the EU is only possible with effective protection of the external borders.

What are you currently more worried about: the situation in the Greek-Turkish border area or the situation in North Africa?

The Greek-Turkish border, both on land and on water, as well as the stretch of sea between Italy, Libya, and Tunisia, are the two hot spots on Europe’s external border. On the southern border, the influx of migrants has increased over the last few months.

What distresses us above all is the uncertainty of how migratory streams into the EU will develop. Migration to Europe – in part as a consequence of upheavals in North Africa and the civil war in Syria – has become less and less predictable. Refugees come in large numbers and routes shift suddenly.

In addition, people with different requirements for protection come to us, and we need to prepare for that. Those in need require suitable responses and accommodation, above all through appropriate asylum procedures in member states.

Is Frontex adequately equipped for its duties?

The new regulations offer Frontex a legal basis to procure its own equipment. Until now, our agency did not have “troops,” our own fleet of ships, or air surveillance at our disposal. All of the personnel and equipment are provided by member states while we coordinate with them all as effectively as possible. Currently, there are no plans to acquire helicopters or patrol boats. That would only be possible if the EU makes substantial funds available.

However, a very important project is in progress at the European level. It has to do with the creation of the monitoring system “Eurosur” (European Surveillance System), which will bring together existing monitoring systems. With it, we hope to be able to better identify migratory movements over land and especially over sea. It will also allow us to more quickly rescue people who are in distress at sea. Finally, it will allow us to more effectively combat crime on the EU’s external borders; not only illegal entry, but also illegal commodity flows such as drugs.

In your work, you combine aspects of crime fighting and controlled entry into the EU. Frontex has been criticized for inadequate protection of basic rights as well as for lax border controls. How do you answer the critics?

We need to better communicate our duties and goals to EU citizens and to our partners. In order to coordinate our border protection operations, we have completely committed ourselves to complying with and promoting basic rights. I would even say that Frontex, alongside agencies such as the EU Agency for Fundamental Human Rights (AFHR), has been a pioneer in ensuring the protection of basic rights.

We work well with the AFHR and with other agencies on asylum procedures. Above all, we appointed a representative for basic rights this year and we also created a strategic advisory body for the protection of basic rights. We offer workers who conduct operations advanced training in basic rights and we do the same for authorities in member states as a component of a standardized training program. We have adopted a code of behavior and have stipulated respect for basic rights as binding in all operations planning. Finally, we possess a mechanism with which we can observe the violation of basic rights during common operations. Those involved in operations thus have a duty to report any violation. The executive director of Frontex can even cancel an operation if there is a serious breach of basic rights.

This palette of measures shows that we consider the protection of basic rights to be a European value. For us, the protection of borders and the protection of basic rights are two sides of the same coin.

What can you do to avoid the humiliating treatment of refugees in third countries?

Frontex seeks to finalize further strategic working agreements with countries of origin and transit countries for irregular migration, as it already has with 18 countries. They serve to facilitate an exchange of information on border and migration issues, as well as general cooperation. One example is that we include third country representatives in Frontex operations so that they can learn more about European community law as it pertains to border protection.

However, political conditions within third countries are not the subject of cooperation, and thus agreements do not deal with the question of which policies a government should follow, whether in the economic or social spheres. These countries would not accept such stipulations.

Frontex is only one piece of the puzzle for migration policy. How does the agency deal with deficits in other areas, such as European asylum policy?

If we can determine that a deficit exists in asylum procedures in an EU country, we do not have the power to stop it. We only have the power to observe and the power of our words. We can write reports to the EU Commission and to the responsible authorities in a member state in which we point out their deficiencies. In some countries that we have repeatedly appealed to, we have been able to achieve a considerable amount. But as a border protection agency, we cannot be responsible for measures regarding migration management, where responsibility lies solely with nation states.

The interview was conducted by Lucas Lypp, online editor.

KLAUS RÖSLER is director of the operations division of the European border protection agency Frontex. He accepted an invitation from the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies to take part in an event as part of the Brussels Briefing series on October 31, 2012 on the topic “On the EU’s Border – The Realignment of Frontex.” Almut Möller, director of the Oppenheim Center, moderated the event.