From its sinister-looking headquarters in Warsaw, Poland, Frontex hunts down refugees trying to make it to safety in Europe. It has made the politicians’ goal of creating a “Fortress Europe” into a reality.
Frontex runs a sprawling network of barbed wire, border guards and war planes and ships along the European Union’s (EU) external border.
Frontex has received part of a £95 million investment by the EU into drones to locate refugee boats. The drones include models that were developed by Israeli arms companies to monitor Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip.
This means that the EU won’t have to rescue refugees, and can get on with the job of stopping them coming into Europe.
Surveillance from satellites, drones and aircraft allows the EU border agency to pin-point refugee boats.
Once a surveillance drone spots a boat, the Warsaw HQ can inform the Libyan coast guard. The coastguard then picks them up and forces them back to Libya where they risk slave auctions, sexual abuse and torture.
This is the frontline of the EU’s war on refugees.
Frontex coordinates the border agencies of EU member states. It focuses on choke points, where refugees try to make it into Europe.
These include the Mediterranean Sea and at the EU’s land border in Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece, where razor wire separates the EU from the rest of world. Its budget and powers have grown immensely since 2015 (see graph). And the EU’s rulers agreed in April to build a permanent force of 10,000 armed border guards by 2027.
In 2015 the main route for refugees was across from Turkey to Greece, then through Serbia and Hungary. Once in Hungary, they could make their way north towards Germany, France and Britain.
But the EU’s rulers signed a deal with the Turkish regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016. This made it easier to deport refugees caught in Greece back to Turkey in exchange for £5 billion.
Anyone who was deported to Turkey was placed at the back of the queue for asylum seeker applications.
But rather than deterring refugees, the deal forced them to take far more dangerous routes across the Mediterranean Sea.
One refugee from Sudan, who we’ve named Ameen, made the perilous journey from Libya to Italy in December 2017. “We were about 100 or so in the boat—children, women and men,” he told Socialist Worker.
“It was a small plastic boat and we could hear the crashing of waves on the side.”
Ameen said it was “very difficult” to make the journey. “But I had no other option,” he explained, “everything in Libya is so dangerous. Somebody can take you and ask for thousands and thousands of dollars to set you free.
“In Libya they can take you as a slave to work on a farm, then shoot you if you try to escape.” Ameen said that he was “lucky enough” to be picked up by a Spanish rescue ship, which docked in Sicily.
The EU launched “Operation Sophia” in response to the refugee crisis in 2015. While it rescued refugees from the sea, it was a military-led operation that aimed to deter them from coming to Europe.
One of its roles was destroying the wooden fishing boats used by refugees in Libya, which forced thousands to rely on more fragile ones. This didn’t deter refugees from coming—it simply made the route deadlier.
This is what the EU’s border policy means. The reason why so many refugees feel they have to face the dangers of the Mediterranean in the first place is because Frontex made land crossings so hazardous.
The Returns Network, a group of investigative journalists, published documents last week that give an insight into the behaviour of land border forces directed by Frontex.
Internal Frontex documents obtained by the journalists talk of “excessive use of force” and “mistreatment”—as one incident from the Hungarian border in 2016 shows.
It involved a group of Afghan nationals—ten unaccompanied children aged ten to 17 years old and two adults aged 25 to 31 years old.
The group had been “sitting in the woods near the waiting area in front of the transit zone” in between the villages of Hogros and Roske. They was preparing to make their way into Hungary from Serbia.
“A group of Hungarian police officers, 13 to 14 persons, in blue uniforms noticed them in the woods and opened the gate to release one of their two dogs on them,” the incident report details.
“The dog started biting them, and three of them were bitten.
“Then, all the policemen entered Serbian territory through the gate and started pepper-spraying the group and beating them with batons.”
All ten managed to run away, but the police officers set off flares in the night sky. When the Afghans tried to leave the forest, police set loose the dogs who chased them to the edge of a road on Serbian territory.
The group tried to scatter, but was caught.
One Afghan gave a testimony to the UN High Commission for Refugees, which submitted the complaint to Frontex. “Reportedly, police officers pepper-sprayed them in their faces and mouths,” it says. “After he had fainted, the first thing he remembers is someone from the group was pulling him to the forest.”
Another incident report shows this wasn’t a one-off—and what can happen when a refugee is caught. “The Hungarian police came up to him, emptied his pockets and beat him,” it describes.
The refugee said that “Hungarian police stole 150 euros from him which he had in his pockets. And they added that “the same thing happened to other migrants crossing the border at that same time”.
Frontex is the nightmarish reality of where the EU is heading—an increasingly militarised regional block that persecutes refugees.
As more refugees flee climate change, poverty and war, the EU’s solution is to throw up more barriers.
Our solution is to break the border open and let people in.
Far right Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini pushed Italy further to the right on immigration last week.
Parliament passed a security bill that threatens the captains of migrant rescue vessels with fines of up to £920,000 if they enter Italy’s ports without permission.
The measure means that the skippers of NGO vessels who rescue asylum seekers in the Mediterranean will be arrested and their vessels impounded.
That is a dramatic increase on the existing £45,000 fine, which was introduced in a previous security bill passed in December. That bill increased raids on migrants’ accommodation and made some 40,000 migrants lose their immigration status.
The new bill also gives added repressive powers to the police.
A threatened rebellion by members of the Five Star Movement, Salvini’s coalition partner, failed to materialise.
“More power to the forces of order, more border controls, more officers,” Salvini tweeted .
His security decrees have been criticised by the Council of Europe and the United Nations.
Salvini has made racism and attacking migrants from North Africa one of his main priorities since coming to office last summer.
He demands that the EU takes an even more aggressive response to refugees than its current policy.
And if he manages to force snap elections in Italy, he will make sure it is dominated by racism.
Salvini is holding a series of rallies around beach resorts in southern Italy.
His first act was to referring to a woman who opposed him as a “zingaraccia”—dirty Gypsy. He used it to announce from the stage that the Roma camp the women lived in would be bulldozed.
Britain doesn’t play a big role in Frontex because it opted out of the EU’s Schengen Area.
But Britain still finds ways of chipping in to Fortress Europe to keep refugees out.
The Royal Navy has been part of operations in the Mediterranean. And those refugees who manage to make it across the Mediterranean, face more brutality and destitution on the continent.
This includes around 1,000 people who are trapped at Britain’s border in Calais in northern France.
Former prime minister Theresa May and French president Emmanuel Macron signed a multimillion pound border agreement in January 2018.
Britain stumped up £45 million to beef up security in Calais, including new fences and surveillance equipment. And the states agreed to relocate refugees from French port towns to further inland, making it harder for them to reach Britain.
Ameen, a Sudanese refugee, said, “When I reached Paris, the authorities didn’t want me there. They punish you. They abuse you.
“They gave me more than three appointments to discuss my asylum case, but nothing came of it.
“So I had to go to Belgium, but the police caught me and made me leave.”
Ameen then lived in the makeshift refugee settlements around Calais, before making it to Britain in the back of a lorry.
In northern France refugees face constant harassment by the cops. “When the police catch you, they put you in the centre,” said Ameen.
“I have been in detention twice on the border, once in Dunkirk and once in Calais.
“I was scared because some people get sent back to Sudan.”
Whether its Fortress Europe or Fortress Britain, the system of repression will stay regardless of whether Britain leaves the EU on 31 October.
Many left wing and liberal politicians who support the EU are calling for greater oversight of Frontex.
But Frontex isn’t just a bad policy decision that needs more transparency—it’s a reflection of the very nature of the EU itself.
The EU is a bloc of capitalist countries, formed to allow its members to compete with bigger rivals on the world market.
This means they want fewer barriers to profit-making within the EU.
It also means strictly controlling what gets into the EU from the rest of the world—and that includes people.
The Schengen Agreement introduced passportless travel and open borders between EU member states, facilitating the free movement of labour.
But the EU also wants to keep a tight control over who’s allowed into this area.
So the flipside of the Schengen Agreement is the barbed wire and border controls of Fortress Europe.
Really challenging Frontex and its brutal border regime means confronting the EU itself.