Former deputy director expressed his concern about the border and coastguard agency Frontex’s damaged reputation, its decision to arm officers, and its inability to stop the far-right infiltrating its ranks, amid anti-migrant movements across Europe.
Frontex is experiencing the most acute crisis in its 16-year history, being investigated by the European parliament over allegations of illegal pushbacks of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean.
Its head, Fabrice Leggeri, who has strongly rejected the allegations, is facing calls to quit over allegations he misled the EU commission.
Gil Arias Fernández, 65, now retired, lost out on the top role to Leggeri in 2015. He admits he did not get on with Leggeri when they worked together for a year.
“Weapons are not needed for Frontex operations,” he said. “They are more of a problem than a help,” adding that the agency is vulnerable to the “alarming” rise of populism across the continent.
“From the first moment I saw that he had a perhaps excessive eagerness to change things. Maybe it was to put his personal stamp on things,” said Arias Fernández.
He said decisions made by one of the EU’s most powerful agencies had led to complicity in human rights violations.
“Frontex pains me,” he said. “Especially for the staff, because they don’t deserve what they are going through. We saw the agency as an instrument to help the member states and the migrants. These events put a dent in all that effort.
“I do not believe that the agency has proactively violated the rights of migrants, but there are reasons to believe that it has turned a blind eye.”
In January 2015, after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, several European politicians suggested the presence of refugees among the terrorists.
When the media asked Frontex about any link between refugees and the Paris attack, Arias Fernández, a former police commissioner in Spain, told them there was no evidence.
Arias Fernández believes this cost him the director’s job.
The political pressure made the job a tough one, Arias Fernández said. “There is a lot of pressure on the part of certain states to put their people in positions of responsibility. Whether the agency is headed by a Frenchman or a Finn may determine whether there is more or less sensitivity to migration problems. The agency is independent, but ‘independent’ should be put in quotation marks because without a fluid relationship with the [European] commission, you have a hard time.
“Operations have always been conducted unarmed and there have never been any problems. In operations where Libyan tribal clans smuggling migrants shot in the air to frighten the patrols, even there it was not considered appropriate to carry weapons. In this case, weapons are more a problem than a help. The proposal of carrying weapons came from the European Commission, which I do not know to what extent is influenced by lobbyists in Brussels.
“There is no filter in the recruitment system. You cannot prevent people with extremist ideas from entering, unless they clearly express their position in favour of hate crimes, xenophobia and racism.”
Arias Fernández pointed to the dearth of human rights training for Frontex officers. “But lack of information should not be used to justify certain things,” he said. “The incidents under investigation were carried out by Greek units following the instructions of their commanders.
He said he appreciated borders needed a certain level of security to know who was entering but added that immigration was vitally important for the survival of all European states.
Arias Fernández said the lack of migrants being allowed into Europe would have a severe economic impact amid an ageing workforce: “Who will pay the pensions of the growing number of pensioners?”
A Frontex spokesman denied the agency ignored migrants’ rights. “The executive director of Frontex has written several letters to the Greek authorities to address incidents that raised his concerns. Two inquiries, including one that was conducted by representatives of national authorities and the European Commission, have found no evidence of violations of human rights in Frontex operations in Greece.” (Source: The Guardian)