Hans Leijtens, the new head of Europe's border agency Frontex, has promised to 'restore trust' as he prepares to take over the role on March 1.
"Border management and fundamental rights, they go hand in hand," declared Hans Leijtens, from the Netherlands, as gave a press conference ahead of the start of his role as head of the EU border agency Frontex on Thursday, January 19. His job is due to officially start on March 1.
The Dutchman has promised to "restore trust" in the agency that last year was rocked by claims that Frontex agents had turned a blind eye to the illegal pushbacks of migrants at several EU borders. The claims led to the resignation of the former Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri and the appointment of an interim director, Aija Kalnaja, who has been carrying out the role since July 2022.
Leijtens said he wanted to make sure that all his staff worked within "the boundaries of the legal framework" and emphasized that he was "responsible for the fact that my people don’t participate in anything called a pushback." He said that the agency would be unable to carry out their jobs without that trust.
The career police officer holds the rank of General Lieutenant and has in the past headed up the Dutch Customs and Tax Agency and was a commandant in the Dutch military police Koninkilijke Marechausssee or Gendarmerie.
'Accountability, respect for rights, transparency'
Three fundamental principles will govern the future work of the agency, reported the European broadcaster Euronews. "Accountability, respect for fundamental rights and transparency."
Some organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the investigative journalist collective Lighthouse Reports have claimed that in the past Frontex was complicit in the abuse of migrants in Libya, by collaborating with the Libyan coast guard to intercept migrants in the Mediterranean.
Even before his appointment, Frontex sought to draw a line under the accusations surrounding Leggeri's resignation, releasing a press release in October 2022 which stated "these were practices of the past," reported Euronews.
The EU’s anti-fraud agency OLAF investigated some of these claims and concluded that some employees of the agency "were involved in covering up [at least six] pushbacks of migrants from Greece to Turkey," reported the news agency Associated Press (AP) and Euronews. The operations involved the Greek coast guard and were co-financed by Frontex.
'I want to open the doors'
In response, Leijtens promised more transparency and said he was "not the type of director who will build a fence around Frontex...I want to open the doors." He added that if NGOs had information concerning Frontex activities they were “more than welcome to give their information to us.”
The EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson joined a press conference with the new Frontex chief in Brussels. Johansoon underlined that "Frontex’s role was to save lives and to alert coast guards when a migrant boat was at risk of sinking," reported AFP.
In less than a month, since the beginning of the year according to the UN Migration Agency IOM’s Missing Migrants project, at least 30 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean towards Europe.
Johansson explained that the EU was busy working in collaboration with the United Nations and the African Union to try and prevent migrants from making the dangerous journey, instead offering them voluntary returns to their countries of origin, or transferring them to "better camps" in Niger with the prospect of resettlment in the EU or elsewhere.
In 2022, the EU estimates that around 330,000 migrants entered the EU without the correct papers, that is the greatest number since 2016, reported AP and Deutsche Welle. Frontex returned about 25,000 people in the same year across the bloc, stated Johansson. The commissioner is expected to announce a new returns strategy next week ahead of a summit of EU leaders in February reported AP.
New returns policy
Many more migrants are asked to leave the bloc and issued with notices to quit the territory, but they don’t actually leave, falling instead into the large numbers of undocumented migrants who are particularly present in countries like Italy and France.
A rise in the number of Bangladeshis, many of whom do not qualify for international protection, contributed to the increase in arrivals to the EU in 2022, said Johansson. Bangladesh has in fact signed return agreements with the EU, but Johansson pointed out at the pres conference, reported Euronews, that "Frontex is sending empty planes to cuntries of origin that are open to taking back their citizens. Recently a plane was sent back to Bangladesh with only eight passengers on board," added Johansson.
Johansson said she had appointed a return co-ordinator in the Commission and that they would be working more closely with Frontex to carry out returns. According to Euronews, she stated that "the Team Europe approach is vital when it comes to returns. It’s important to not leave member states alone but also to ask member states to step up when we have the political momentum with a third country."
With AFP and AP