European Union authorities are mulling sending armed border and coastguard forces on missions beyond Europe for the first time, with Senegal as an initial destination.
Although the plan for the agency, Frontex, to post officers to Africa, is still is at the discussion stage, the agency’s main role so far has been to restrict migration to Europe — and that makes the initiative highly symbolic and, to some, deeply troubling.
In a sign that the plan has a measure of momentum, Senegal’s interior minister has given a “green light for technical discussions,” the European Commission confirmed on Monday (14 February).
The European Commission said it was considering sending experts to Senegal next month to hammer out details on a Frontex mission, which it says would also seek to curtail illegal fishing.
The plan emerged last week when Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for home affairs, told a press conference in Senegal that such a mission would be “the first time ever that we have that kind of cooperation with a country in Africa.”
The degree to which such a mission would address migrant smuggling and security-related threats at the borders of Senegal remains unclear.
But the deployment would be done under a so-called model agreement with third countries drafted by the European Commission last December to combat “illegal immigration and cross-border crime” and carry out returns of unwanted migrants and rejected asylum seekers.
Among the outstanding questions is whether agents from Frontex, which has been under fire for mistreatment of migrants in Europe, would have immunity while in Senegal. That’s a status its agents have had on other missions outside the EU including in the Western Balkans.
Roderick Parkes of the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations says sending a Frontex mission to Senegal could be counterproductive in terms of restricting migration.
“When we put border controls in place, no matter how well-intentioned, they tend to be unsympathetic to local practice, and so that creates smuggling networks,” Parkes told EUobserver.
“The more we go in and say we’re going to help individual countries control their borders, the more we undermine that, and the more it kind of becomes self-fulling,” he said.
Parkes also said that African regional efforts at establishing open borders and ensuring free movement among neighbouring African states probably would be more conducive to preventing smuggling.
“We’re completely blind to the fact that Africans like to move regionally and look for work,” he said.
Tanya Cox, director of the Concord, pan-European network of relief and development organisations, said the plan to dispatch Frontex to Senegal was evidence of an imbalance of power between the EU and some African states.
“What is wrong in this relationship is that the EU imposes its solution without first seeing whether they are appropriate,” Cox said. “It seems that the European Union is again imposing its way, its agenda, it’s solutions and this is most particularly what is wrong,” she said.
Edwin Ikhuoria, Africa executive director at the ONE Campaign, an advocacy group, also took a critical stand on the Frontex plan.
“This move does not tackle the underlying, root causes of the problem – why are people leaving? It mistakenly focuses on the short-term, addressing the effects of the problem instead of the causes.”
Africa needs to create as many as 15 million jobs a year to keep up with its growing youth population, Ikhuoria said.
Frontex already is in the spotlight for possible rights violations taking place inside Europe, including off the Greek islands. The plan to deploy to Africa may only serve to exacerbate concerns about accountability, particularly during operations in African states with weak democratic institutions.
Frontex does have a new fundamental rights officer, Jonas Grimheden, empowered to investigate any wrongdoing by the agency.
Although Grimheden’s team of some 20 monitors is set to double, they are currently stretched thin and have no real power to block decisions to deploy overseas. But he said his team could carry out checks anywhere.
“We are following developments and provide input into any preparations in such cases and depending on the nature of operations, we may also monitor activities on the spot,” he told EUobserver.
The agency’s expanding role also comes as the European Commission gears up to spend some €4.35bn of its foreign budget over the next few years on African migration issues.