Frontex from Within: An Interview with Ewa Moncure
Increased migration to the European Union has created enormous pressure on governments to ensure the safe entry of legal migrants, establish the credentials of those in legal limbo, and deter human trafficking. Between 2012 and 2020, Ewa Moncure was the spokesperson for Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency created in 2005 and based in Warsaw, and later also headed its communication department. Moncure left the agency in December 2020 and offers her perspectives on Frontex’s history and present challenges.
—Elizabeth Jones for EuropeNow
EuropeNow Many readers will be familiar with the Frontex organization, but for those who have not heard of it, what is its mission?
Ewa Moncure The European Border and Coast Guard Agency―Frontex―is a European Union body that acts on behalf of all the member states of the Union and is funded by the European Commission. Most of the twenty-seven EU member states make up a free movement area where the internal border controls have been removed, creating an external border at the outer perimeters of the EU. The agency was created in 2005, and in recent years, also substantially strengthened in order to help national authorities deal with the flow of unauthorized migrants across EU borders and increasingly to help fight cross border crime (such as trafficking people across borders for a fee, smuggling of drugs, weapons, or other goods). With the creation and rapid extension of the Schengen area from northern and central Europe to include Poland Greece, Italy, and Spain, it had become clear that the EU needed a mechanism/organization to strengthen control of its external borders. The number of migrants illegally crossing the EU’s borders has fluctuated from about a million in 2015, to half a million in 2016, and around 100,000 annually in recent years. Frontex also plays a growing role in returning to their countries of origin migrants who are deemed not to have a right to stay in the EU.
The main task of the agency is management of the external borders of the European Union. In collaboration with the border authorities of the member states, the agency conducts border control at the outer limits of the EU―at its land, sea, and air borders. At the request from member states, Frontex does this by deploying border guards and technical equipment such as patrol cars, patrol vessels, patrol planes, and helicopters to these sections of the external EU borders where the national border guards need additional support. This support might be needed because of growing migratory pressure or other factors that require deploying additional resources at short notice. For example, for Frontex to deploy border guards, patrol vessels, and surveillance teams on the Greek island of Lesbos, it would have to be solicited by the Greek authorities for support in that particular area. Decisions about who is deported or not remains entirely with national authorities. For instance, if a migrant applies for asylum under the Common European Asylum System and his/her application is rejected, this decision is relayed to the relevant national authorities who issue a return decision. A migrant has the right to appeal the decision, but most migrants who receive deportation orders are encouraged to leave voluntarily and often given assistance to do so. However only about half decide to leave.
Until now, the border guards and technical equipment deployed (and paid) by the agency at the external border have been resources emanating from the national border authorities within each member state. These could be deployed for a few weeks to months, depending on how long national staff or equipment could be away on a Frontex mission. However, several years ago, Frontex began to purchase and build its own equipment pool. The biggest change came in 2019 when the new Frontex regulation mandated the creation of the European Border and Coast Guard standing corps of border guards, Frontex’s own corps of armed border guards and the first EU armed force. By the end of 2020, Frontex had recruited and trained 450 border guards who can be now deployed in Frontex operations alongside their colleagues from the national authorities. Within five years, the standing corps is to have several thousand permanent members.
EuropeNow How does Frontex measure success? Do member states have different understandings of border security? Are the tasks of border security and border management different depending on place and time?
Ewa Moncure The Schengen Border Code, which applies to all member states, defines how the common external border of the Schengen area is controlled. Under the Code, all member states must interpret the law in the same way. Frontex provides support in situations where an EU member responsible for a part of that common EU border is no longer able to control it. This may mean that there is additional need for vessels in maritime surveillance and search and rescue at sea, or for more officers in the reception centers for migrants to conduct registration and identification of migrants, since many of them do not carry identification documents. Definition of success in border control is a tricky task because putting more resources at a border (for example vessels for surveillance and search and rescue) might increase the flow of migrants as people smugglers might spread the word among migrants that it is now safer to cross the sea as there are more boats out assisting with search and rescue.
Ensuring border security is another task of border control. Border guards do their best to check if there are foreign terrorist fighters or other criminals among the migrants. Following the terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, and Germany during the migration crisis of 2015 and 2016, border security became a very important aspect of border control. With the outbreak of the pandemic last year, ensuring border security also meant introducing sanitary measures that would help slow down the spread of the virus.
EuropeNow How has Frontex’s work evolved over time? What have been some of the unforeseen challenges Frontex has faced?
Ewa Moncure Frontex started as a small agency coordinating deployment of small contingents of European border guards to hot spots at the external borders of the EU, such as Lampedusa or Evros. Before 2015, Frontex operations at the external borders were modest, in terms of people and equipment deployed. or example, at any given time we would have some 300 officers at the external borders, ten patrol vessels, and two helicopters. As the movement of migrants towards Europe intensified in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring and the breakout of the wars in Libya and Syria, it became clear that the support Frontex was offering to Greece and Italy was insufficient. With 5,000 to 7,000 migrants arriving every day to the island of Lesvos, Greece needed hundreds of additional border guards not only to patrol the sea but also to register, interview, and eventually return migrants who were deemed not to have the legal right to remain in Greece. Therefore, between 2011 and 2021, the agency grew from 300 to over 1200 staff. Moreover, last year, the agency recruited its first own batch of border guards (the “standing corps”). Such a growth presents many challenges, some unpredictable, such as the outbreak of the pandemic, and others that emerged out of ad hoc management and planning.
EuropeNow Since its inception, has Frontex forged fruitful partnerships with other EU organizations and individual states? Have there been missed opportunities, or lack of coordination and cooperation?
Ewa Moncure It is difficult to say. Frontex is an EU agency that is part of the European Commission. So, all partnerships must occur through consultation with and with the approval of the Commission to ensure they are in line with the Commission’s strategy.
EuropeNow Is there such a thing as a typical migrant, and how has that changed over the past fifteen years?
Ewa Moncure I do not think there has ever been a typical migrant. There are certain categories of migrants who attempt to enter the EU “illegally” using specific migratory routes, but that changes over time, although some routes remain through time. What does change is the “popularity” of any particular route in a given year. For example, in 2014 most migrants arrived in Italy by crossing the Mediterranean from Libya. The next year, 850,000 migrants, half of them Syrians, arrived in the Greek islands from Turkey. Other migratory routes to Europe include the Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece and Cyprus, the Eastern route over land from Turkey to Greece and Bulgaria, the Central Mediterranean route from Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia to Italy and Malta, the Western Mediterranean route from Morocco and Algeria to Spain, and the Atlantic route from Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal to the Canary Islands. The migrants on these routes are of different nationalities and leave their countries for different reasons, although there might be overlaps. Some escape war and persecution, some look for work or a chance to get an education, and others are actively recruited by people smugglers with a promise of a better life overseas. For example, Syrians are still numerous among the migrants coming to Greece (note however they are not coming to Greece from Syria but from Turkey, where most live for several years before crossing over). Greece is also a destination for nationals of Afghanistan, who do qualify as refugees in 60 percent of EU countries, but the asylum recognition rate depends on where they are from in Afghanistan as some areas are not considered as dangerous as others. Consequently, several EU countries return Afghans to Afghanistan.
On the Central Mediterranean route, we have seen many migrants from as far away as Bangladesh, who either used to work in North Africa before and were trying to move to Europe or who would fly from Bangladesh to Libya to cross the Mediterranean with the help of people smugglers. For a while there were large numbers of minor Moroccan boys arriving in Spain (twelve to sixteen years old) who were sent alone by their families because they could not be returned, as EU law does not permit the returning of minors (unless it can be ensured that the child’s close family will received him/her at the other end).
In short, among the many migrants headed for the EU who are war refugees, many have already been living outside of their home country and seek out a better life or asylum in Europe. There are also victims of trafficking, such as Nigerian women who have been sold to traffickers by their families and are being brought to Europe to work as prostitutes. There are large mafias specialized in this trade in Spain and Italy. There are also thousands of economic migrants coming from Asia and Africa looking for work.
EuropeNow Do you think Frontex has a role to play in supporting the integration of migrants into European societies, understanding that integration is a multi-faceted and complex process that may take generations?
Ewa Moncure Integration of migrants into European societies is outside the mandate of Frontex. It falls on the national governments to decide who will be given international protection and for how long and then how to integrate the new members of their society.
EuropeNow How, if at all, have the worsening disruptions of climate change reshaped the organization’s mission?
Ewa Moncure Climate change is definitely one of the factors that influence migration patterns, but migration is a complex process. Most people, when they cannot make a living where they live, migrate to a neighboring region/town and only from there do they then leave their country. Only some migrants―the courageous ones, the ones with skills, or the ones with money or the ability to borrow money―might decide to go to a distant, wealthy country. The other factors that a potential migrant might consider include the existence of diasporas and smuggling networks that can organize the trip and other logistics. Research shows that the poorest people and the ones with the least education, do not migrate. They lack the means, they do not have networks that would help them organize the trip, they do not know anybody who migrated, etc. The ones who migrate are usually a self-selecting group of people not afraid of the many dangerous challenges, although this may not be true of war refugees.
EuropeNow Can you foresee a time when the refugee crisis will not be front and center in European political debates?
Ewa Moncure I hope we will move on and begin to speak responsibly about migration, not in terms of crisis but in terms of who we offer protection to, so we act in line with our values. We should also check if member states still share the same values. We will also need to attend to the ways in which we integrate people in the countries where they are offered a new home. How do we make sure our societies are more open and accepting of migrants (poisonous, populist, anti -migrant venom that we hear in Poland or Hungary does not help)? How do we educate people so they understand that migrants actually do not steal their jobs? How do we educate people so they understand that our economy needs migrants because we do not have enough people in the workforce? What do we do so citizens of the EU are not afraid of migrants?
Ewa Moncure is a native of Warsaw and until last December was the spokesperson and head of communications for Frontex. Before joining Frontex, Ewa worked in publishing in Boston, as a PR consultant in Brussels, and for the European food safety authority in Parma, Italy. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Tufts.
Elizabeth Jones is Professor Emerita of German and European history at Colorado State University and lives in Corvallis, Oregon. Her scholarship focuses on the rural history of nineteenth and twentieth-century Germany. Elizabeth is active at the municipal and county levels on issues of food security and sovereignty and environmental resource conservation. She is also a member of the research editorial team at EuropeNow.