The EU border agency Frontex deported a record number of people in the first half of the year, according to a leaked document that has sparked concern about people being sent back to countries where they may face war or persecution.
In a report issued to the EU Council of Ministers, Frontex said it had deported 8,239 non-EU nationals in the first six months of 2021, a record number and a 9% increase on the same period in 2019, before the pandemic hit global travel.
EU member states continue to run their own deportations, but the increase in Frontex operations shows how member states are increasingly turning to the EU agency for help in managing migration, from deportations to border patrol.
The civil liberties NGO Statewatch, which published the leaked report, argued there was “no certainty” that Frontex was not supporting refoulements, ie sending people back to face repression or war in their home countries.
A spokesperson for Frontex said returns decisions were always made by EU member states in line with EU law.
People denied the right to asylum can be returned to their home country, although governments struggle to carry out deportations. In 2019, 491,200 people were ordered to leave the EU, but only 29% were returned to their country of origin.
The European Commission aims to sign more return agreements with non-EU countries as it seeks to increase the number of people denied asylum returned to their home nations.
In 2020 the main nationalities of people ordered to leave the EU were Algerian, Moroccan, Albanian, Ukrainian and Pakistani.
In the first half of the year, 61% of people returned by Frontex chose to leave, while 39% were forcibly returned, according to the agency. The overall proportion of forced returns declined, which Frontex attributed to people refusing to undergo Covid-19 tests or get vaccinations to frustrate a deportation order.
Under EU law, people being forced to return should be accompanied by human rights monitors. Yet in the first half of 2021 a “forced return monitor” was present on only 47% of Frontex-organised charter flights, 23% of nationally organised flights and 73% of jointly organised flights. Overall there was a 7% reduction in the presence of monitors on all returns flights compared with the same period in 2020, which the agency blamed on Covid travel restrictions.
Tineke Strik, a Dutch Green MEP, said the increase in deportations raised concerns, because Frontex says it is not obliged to verify if all steps of an asylum procedure have been followed. “Frontex seems to underestimate its responsibility in making sure that fundamental rights are respected,” she said.
She pointed to a recent European court of justice ruling that found the Hungarian government had broken EU law by limiting the right to asylum. “If the asylum procedure has a lot of deficiencies, you don’t know if it’s safe for the person to be returned,” she said.
The Dutch MEP was the author of a recent cross-party report that concluded Frontex had failed to protect the human rights of asylum seekers and appoint its full quota of legally required human rights monitors.
She said EU member states also needed to “step up their capacity” to ensure human rights monitors were always present on deportation flights.
Frontex has become a centrepiece of EU migration policy since 1.2 million people fled to Europe in 2015 to seek asylum. After the migration crisis, EU leaders agreed to increase funding for the Warsaw-based agency and create a 10,000 strong European border and coast guard by 2027.
A Frontex spokesperson said: “Before any return flight is organised by Frontex, the agency requires from the national authorities confirmation that their return decisions were issued in line with the European law.
“Frontex is responsible for the coordination of return operations, but the decision about who should be returned is always taken by the judicial or administrative authorities of the member states. According to European legislation, the individual is always given the possibility to appeal against this return decision. Frontex does not enter into the merits of return decisions issued by the member states.”