Since the Lampedusa crisis, failed migration attempts have gained media coverage and sent shockwaves throughout Europe.
"This is one of the biggest tragedies in Europe's history, caused by the member states and tolerated by the EU and its agencies,” said Left MEP Cornelia Ernst, one of the panelists at an event jointly hosted by Frontex and EurActiv Germany last week in Berlin.
“Only after the terrible accident at Lampedusa, with roughly 360 deaths, it was noticed that 19,000 people had already lost their lives," she pointed out.
The event addressed the dangers at the EU's maritime borders, the fate of refugees, the complicated multi-level regulatory structure, and the tasks of Frontex. Defined by the agency’s deputy executive director Gil Arias, Frontex is the "European body responsible for the coordination of operational cooperation at external borders".
But “this definition,” Arias admitted, “does not explain how we work in practice”. The Mediterranean Sea spans 2.5 million square kilometres, he explained, and cannot be monitored by normal border controls.
As a matter of principle, border security is a matter of the individual member states, he said, explaining that when these become overwhelmed and need support, they turn to Frontex. The EU agency cannot act of its own accord, he emphasised. Rather it is dependent on the individual EU member states.
"Frontex does not possess aircraft, nor border guards, nor vessels to perform the actual border control at external borders", Arias pointed out. Frontex must use boats and aircraft from national authorities – for which it must also pay a borrowing fee, he said.
Border control becomes search and rescue
In reality, Frontex was designed as an instrument for border control, not migration policy. Its mandate is to support EU member states in protecting their external borders from illegal activities. This may include anything from illegal migration and human trafficking to smuggling of illegal drugs and much more.
To fulfill these tasks, the EU currently allocates roughly €90 million annually to Frontex. During difficult years, (for example, during the Arab Spring), the budget had to be substantially increased.
Like other bodies of water, the Mediterranean is divided into national search and rescue areas, Arias said. "All vessels - whether military, coast guard, fishing, private - and other assets in the area are included in the rescue operation, including those coordinated by Frontex," the agency's deputy executive director explained.
Often the monitoring and controlling missions suddenly turn into search and rescue operations, Arias pointed out, saying this went beyond Frontex's mandate, which often leads to misunderstandings about its role. "I must stress that we are well aware that the border control is not a proper tool for migration management,” he said, admitting limitations in the agency's role.
In Italy alone last year, 280 search and rescue operations were coordinated by Frontex, saving more than 30,000 people. "In all Frontex operations in 2013, there were 683 search and rescue cases with a total of 37,000 migrants in distress that were saved. This means that last year, on average, Frontex coordinated assets were able to save over 100 persons per day," Arias pointed out.
Would it be different without Frontex?
Europe's southern maritime border, the Mediterranean, remains one of the most important gateways for those attempting to cross into Europe. Roughly 45,000 migrants made it to Italy alone by that route in 2013.
Added to the sheer number of migrants, not a single member state on the Mediterranean is capable of monitoring the vast stretches of the Mediterranean Sea, especially at the high seas. "Even when a boat is spotted in distress, in favourable weather conditions it takes a coastal patrol vessel four hours to reach a boat which is 50 nautical miles away - which is less than 100 kilometres," Arias said.
Speaking at the event, Anna Mrozek, a legal expert from the University of Leipzig, sought to outline the legal complications caused by overlap in this subject area, but she also posed a simple question to the protesters: "Do you think it would be different without Frontex? It would probably be even worse!"
It is not just a moral and political problem, Mrozek said, but is legally also quite complex due to the high amount of overlap.
EU has ‘abandoned’ communities
Achim Barchmann, a Social Democrat MP from the German Bundestag, described his latest impressions of Jordan, a country which has accepted 600,000 refugees from Syria. "That is 10% of the Jordanian population,” he said, adding that “in Germany that would be 8 million refugees!"
The 5,000 refugees Germany has accepted from Syria are too few, Barchmann said, adding that the community has been abandoned by their national and regional supporters, but also by the EU.
>> Read: Germany refuses to take in more refugees
Barchmann described a possible scenario regarding youth unemployment on Europe's Southern border: unemployment in Greece is at 62%, in Spain over 50%, "but if I look at North Africa - Tunisia, Egypt - 80 to 100% can be observed!"
‘Push-back operations are particularly dangerous’
Cornelia Ernst, a member of the European Parliament from Germany's Left Party (Die Linke), criticised the EU's asylum policy, saying it only leads to partitioning, and has failed completely. It is unacceptable, she said, that €2 billion will have been spent by 2020 to protect the "Fortress of Europe" rather than aiding the refugees.
"To weigh the costs against the benefits, … we have 19,000 dead on the EU's borders, and many are not even found. Even the 474 illegal detention centres at the EU's external borders are not given enough funding,” she said. “Political and moral costs should be added to this.”
Furthermore, Ernst considered the push-back operations particularly dangerous, as they are often combined with human rights violations, torture and abuse.
In addition, she said, the prohibition of collective deportation – especially in Greece – is being trampled upon and “the EU is silent on this". The Left Group in the European Parliament is calling on the German government, and the European Council, to make rescuing refugees the main purpose of the EU's border agencies.