By Owen Bowcott
Deportation flights should carry human rights monitors to check on the safety of failed asylum seekers who have been forcibly removed, a senior EU commissioner has recommended.
The suggestion comes as the EU's external border agency, Frontex, prepares to assume extra powers to charter aircraft, buy equipment and explore satellite technology to survey the union's frontiers.
Research by the Warsaw-based agency on the use of drones – unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – to patrol frontiers is being closely followed in Britain, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) has confirmed. Although the UK is not in the Schengen agreement, which removed most EU internal borders, it is closely involved with Frontex. The Home Office minister Meg Hillier was present when the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting supported reinforcing the agency's remit.
The research projects and extra capabilities Frontex is taking on include:
• Hiring aircraft to pick up failed asylum-seekers from EU states in order to improve coordination of deportation flights to Africa, Asia and South America.
• Harmonising the workings of Automated Border Control (ABC) gates that check travellers' biometric passports, to encourage information sharing between intelligence databases. ABC gates are in use at several UK airports.
• Developing training programmes to "lay the foundation of a culture of border guards" that respects human rights.
• Testing surveillance systems such as UAVs, remote sensing equipment and satellites to forestall illegal immigration.
Frontex, established in 2005, has been active in coordinating naval patrols in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas to intercept boatloads of migrants attempting to enter the EU. Its annual budget is €80m and it has a staff of around 230.
The latest development will see its role enlarged. Frontex liaison officers could be stationed in states such as Turkey that are commonly used by migrants as hopping-off points to enter Europe.
The suggestion that observers be put on board deportation flights is a response to claims by failed asylum seekers that they have been hit or abused by guards.
Unveiling plans to strengthen Frontex, Cecilia Malmström, the Swedish EU commissioner for home affairs, said: "Safeguards [should be] put in place to make sure that [Frontex] return operations are carried out in full respect of fundamental rights. For example, an independent monitor shall be present during such operations and report … on compliance with EU law."
Some EU states, though not the UK, already allow Red Cross observers to accompany asylum seekers being forcibly returned overseas.
The proposals have to be approved by the European parliament.
The UKBA said it welcomed a greater role for Frontex in coordinating the efforts of EU member states to mount effective returns for failed asylum seekers. Britain has, "on occasion" allowed representatives of the Independent Monitoring Board on board deportation flights as observers. "This is a matter we will keep under review," it added.
In June, Frontext will host a conference and technical demonstration of potential uses of UAV drones for border surveillance. Edgar Beugels, the Dutch head of research and development at Frontex, told the Guardian he expected UK firms and agencies to attend the event, which will be held in Spain. "The UK is very much interested in UAVs," he said.
For the past three years, Frontex has helped coordinate deportation flights of failed asylum seekers. Britain has participated in flights that have removed failed asylum seekers to Nigeria, Pakistan, Kosovo and Georgia.
In its enhanced role, Frontex will be responsible for hiring aircraft for the purpose of joint return operations.
On drones, a UKBA spokesman said: "[We have] followed the development of UAVs for the purpose of border surveillance … The UK Border Agency has no current plans to use drones but we are always open to examination of the potential of innovative technology and do not rule out the use of drones at some time in the future."
A spokesman for the Stop Deportation campaign welcomed deployment of human rights monitors on flights but added: "Frontex's greater role may push accountability to another level away from national governments. It may make it more difficult to challenge deportations."
Beefed up EU border control agency to respect rights
By Valentina Pop
Source: EUOberver - 24 Feb
The European Commission on Wednesday (24 February) proposed to strengthen the capabilities and the human rights training of the bloc's border control agency Frontex, a body criticised by watchdogs for its tolerance to some countries' abusive procedures against migrants.
Under the proposals, the budget for Frontex will remain unchanged – €80 million a year. But unlike the past, member states who pledge to contribute with staff or equipment to the Warsaw-based body will have to stick to their promises, otherwise facing legal cases from the European Commission, home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said during a press conference.
In her first press conference as EU commissioner, the former Swedish MEP who had always been an outspoken of human rights and transparency, pledged to keep a strong focus on the respect of fundamental rights of migrants.
The proposals she tabled include an "explicit requirement for all border guards taking part in operations to have been trained in fundamental rights," so that no migrants are sent from Europe before establishing if they are legitimate refugees or asylum seekers.
Return flights carried out by member states in co-operation with Frontex will have a member of a non-governmental organisation, such as the Red Cross, on board in order to ensure that no violation of human rights takes place.
She said this first initiative was just one of a broader package of policy proposals dealing with asylum and migration. Interior ministers meeting on Wednesday in Brussels will have a first look at this blueprint, which also needs the approval of the European Parliament before being enacted.
Pressed about the controversial role of Frontex last year in Italy's returning policy of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, Ms Malmstrom admitted that "mistakes" may have been made in the past.
"I don't exclude at all that errors were committed in the past, that's why I'm so keen to really reinforce that all the people involved in Frontex operations have the adequate education and know exactly what to do. Because of course, these people [the migrants] are not criminals, they are in the search for a better life and they have the right to be treated in a dignified way," she said.
In a report published last year, human rights watchdog Amnesty International said that Frontex was helping Italian authorities in their forced return policy taking migrants directly back to Libya, where they face detention and blackmail.
Civil groups have slammed as "shameful" the attitude from other EU member states who kept silence over Italy's gross violation of international conventions on refugees, stipulating that nobody should be sent back to countries where they may face inhuman treatment.
Ever since Rome signed a bilateral agreement with Tripoli last summer, migrant flows on the Mediterranean have decreased considerably. But the price to pay, according to several groups, is that legitimate asylum seekers and refugees from conflict zones such as Darfur are being imprisoned in poor conditions in African countries, even before they attempt to travel to Europe.
Bjarte Vandvik, from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, an umbrella group advocating for the rights of asylum seekers stressed that most of the "scaremongering" done by politicians in respect to irregular migrants had no factual basis.
It was also quite embarrassing that in 2009 most refugees who landed in Malta, an EU member state in the middle of the Mediterranean, were resettled by the United States, not by any other European country, he told journalists in a briefing on Wednesday. The US is also the biggest resettler worldwide, with some two thirds of the 30-40,000 refugees registered yearly by the United Nations. Europe, on the other hand, only accounts for seven percent of that figure.
"European governments brag about their success in fighting irregular migration but refugees who are prevented from arriving to the European territory are paying the price of this ‘success'," said Alfredo Abad from Spanish Commission for Refugees, also present at the briefing organised by the human rights groups.