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Recent investigations have linked EU border agency Frontex to illegal action resulting in the inhumane treatment and deaths of thousands of asylum seekers.

Reports allege that Frontex engaged in misconduct and unlawful operations including violence and mistreatment during detention and transport aimed at preventing asylum seekers from reaching EU countries. 

A recent investigation by British newspaper The Guardian traced the illegal pushback of at least 40,000 people seeking asylum in the EU and subsequent deaths of more than 2,000 people, to the systemic actions of Frontex. The investigation alleges that the EU border agency used illegal tactics to systemically push back thousands of refugees, and also engaged in violence and inhumane treatment during detention or transportation. The Guardian’s analysis is based on reports by UN agencies, along with a database of incidents collected by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  

An earlier joint investigation by news organizations Lighthouse-Report, Der Spiegel, Libération, and ARD has also revealed the crucial role Frontex plays in the interception and return of people fleeing Libya by the so-called Libyan coastguard. This has led to the interception and forced return of 6,000 people to Libya. In many of the reported instances, the European border agency spotted boats in distress and communicated their location to the Libyan coastguard rather than nearby commercial or NGO vessels that could often have conducted a faster rescue. Further data has revealed the wanton negligence of Frontex, which was present and watching while at least 91 people went missing and are presumed to have drowned.

Speaking to the European Parliament in March, Frontex head Fabice Leggeri denied any direct cooperation with the Libyan coastguard. But Frontex does inform Libyan authorities, including the EU-financed Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC), which members of the Libyan coastguard suggest is effectively one and the same as the coastguard itself. Further, testimonials revealed in the investigation report Frontex directly communicating coordinates of boats in distress with the Libyan coastguard via WhatsApp. Such interventions have directly undermined the work of European NGOs attempting to rescue boats in distress, instead forcing asylum seekers to return to the very country they are fleeing. This report further validates findings of Frontex’s systemic operations to illegally pushback asylum seekers from reaching EU borders. 

These new revelations of misconduct by Frontex are by no means new or isolated incidents. While some, like European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, defend Frontex as central to the success of the EU’s new migration and asylum strategy, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency already faces intense scrutiny. Since the start of 2021, the agency has been under fire for the ‘reluctance’ to comply with implementing fundamental rights provisions, illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers, as well as investigations related to the agency’s activities in the Aegean Sea. Even internal Frontex reports from March reveal that the organization suffers from ‘deficiencies’ and is in need of a new ‘culture’. Internal organizational issues, along with allegations of unlawful operations, prompted the European Anti-fraud Office (OLAF) to launch an investigation into Frontex in January. The UNHCR also issued a call for EU countries to investigate the reported illegal border expulsions and allegations of mistreatment and violence against Frontex. 


Teresa Pian

Research Intern 
Institute of Public Affairs
MA Candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto