“Hera” is the only Frontex maritime mission on the territory of a third country. A new agreement might extend this joint border surveillance
The EU border agency Frontex wants to bring back refugees picked up in the Atlantic Ocean to Senegal. The EU Commission should therefore negotiate a so-called Status Agreement with the government in Dakar. The proposal can be found in the annual report on the implementation of the Regulation for the surveillance of external sea borders. It regulates the maritime “operational cooperation” of Frontex with third countries.
It would be the first agreement of this kind with an African government. So far, Frontex has only concluded Status Agreements with a number of Western Balkan countries for the joint surveillance of land borders. The only operation to date in a third country was launched by the Border Agency in Albania a year ago.
Frontex has been coordinating the joint operation “Hera” in the Atlantic since 2006. The reason for the first and thus oldest EU border surveillance mission was the arrival of many thousands of refugees in boats on the Canary Islands via Morocco, Mauritania, Cape Verde and Senegal. For a short period of time, the German Federal Police had also participated in “Hera”, in addition to Portugal, France, Italy, Finland and Luxembourg. Already in 2007 the arrivals decreased drastically. For the past year, Frontex’s “Migratory Map” records only 711 irregular arrivals (by December) on Gran Canaria, Tenerife and the other Spanish islands. According to media reports, this number has been nearly doubled in the first two months of 2020 alone.
“Hera” is the only maritime mission in which Frontex coordinates an operation which, with Senegal, also takes place in the 12-mile zone, the exclusive economic zone and the airspace of a third country. In “Themis”, “Indalo” and “Poseidon”, the operational plan only covers waters under the jurisdiction and monitoring of EU Member States.
Currently, “Hera” is operated by Spain as the “host state” with support from Portugal. The two countries patrol with frigates and smaller ships and carry out aerial surveillance with a helicopter. They first transmit their information to a control centre in Las Palmas, to which Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal have sent liaison officers. Processed intelligence is then forwarded to the International Coordination Centre (ICC) in Madrid, which manages all operations of the Spanish border authorities and is also responsible for cooperation with Frontex.
If suspicious boats are detected in the area of operations in “Hera”, a report is made to the competent Maritime Rescue Operations Centre (MRCC). All those picked up in the Spanish Search and Rescue zone have been able to disembark in the Canary Islands in recent years.
If the refugees are still in the Senegalese SAR zone, the national coast guard brings them back to the West African country. With a Status Agreement, Frontex assets could do the same. According to SAR Info, a Canadian information platform, the Senegalese national MRCC is also responsible for the rescue coordination off the coast of Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania.
Before planning a disembarkation of intercepted refugees in third countries, the host state of a Frontex mission must assess the situation in the corresponding country. From Frontex’s point of view, disembarkations would be possible for Turkey and Senegal, as the governments there do not violate basic fundamental and human rights and also adhere to the principle of non-refoulement, according to which refugees may not be returned to countries from which they have fled. So far, says Leggeri, Frontex and the EU Member States involved in “Poseidon” and “Hera” have not disembarked any persons anywhere.
The report signed by Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri is as usual one year late, the paper published last week refers to 2018. That was the same year in which the European Union once again wanted to set up “regional disembarkation centres” in North Africa. There, asylum applications of persons seeking protection would be examined even before they reach Europe. All the governments in question rejected the proposal, and the African Union also opposed it a year ago. Led by Egypt, the 55 member states criticise the planned EU facilities as “de facto detention centres”.
In the report, Leggeri complains that Frontex has too little competence in its four maritime missions. Bilateral agreements, such as those Italy has concluded with Libya or Spain with Morocco, allow for much closer cooperation with North African coastguards.
Image: The SAR zones in Western Africa (SAR Contacts).