Status agreement with Senegal: Frontex might operate in Africa for the first time

The border agency in Warsaw could deploy drones, vessels and personnel. It would be the first mission in a country that does not directly border the EU. Mauretania might be next.

As a „priority third state“ in West Africa, Senegal has long been a partner for migration-related security cooperation with the EU. The government in Dakar is one of the addressees of the „North Africa Operational Partnership“; it also receives technical equipment and advice for border police upgrading from EU development aid funds. Now Brussels is pushing for a Frontex mission in Senegal. To this end, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen travelled personally to the capital Dakar last week. She was accompanied by the Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, who said that a contract with Senegal might be finalised until summer. For the matter, Johansson met with Senegal’s armed-forces minister and foreign minister.

For operations outside the EU, Frontex needs a so-called status agreement with the country concerned. It regulates, for example, the use of coercive police measures, the deployment of weapons or immunity from criminal and civil prosecution. The Commission will be entrusted with the negotiations for such an agreement with Senegal after the Council has given the mandate. The basis would be a „model status agreement“ drafted by the Commission on the basis of Frontex missions in the Western Balkans. Frontex launched its first mission in a third country in 2019 in Albania, followed by Montenegro in 2020 and Serbia in 2021.

New EU Steering Group on migration issues

The deployment to Senegal would be the first time the Border Agency would be stationed outside Europe with operational competences. Johansson also offered „surveillance equipment such as drones and vessels“. This would take the already established cooperation to a new level.

Frontex is already active in the country, but without uniformed and armed police personnel. Of the only four liaison officers Frontex has seconded to third countries, one is based at the premises of the EU delegation in Dakar. His tasks include communicating with the authorities responsible for border management and assisting with deportations from EU member states. Since 2019, Senegal has been a member of Frontex’s so-called AFIC network. In this „Risk Analysis Cell“, the agency joins forces with African police forces and secret services for exchanges on imminent migration movements. For this purpose, Frontex has negotiated a working agreement with the Senegalese police and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The new talks with Senegal are coordinated in the recently created „Operational Coordination Mechanism for the External Dimension of Migration“ (MOCADEM). It is an initiative of EU member states to better manage their politics in countries of particular interest. These include Niger or Iraq, whose government recently organised return flights for its own nationals from Minsk after Belarus‘ „instrumentalisation of refugees“ at the EU’s insistence. If the countries continue to help with EU migration control, they will receive concessions for visa issuance or for labour migration.

Senegal also demands something in return for allowing a Frontex mission. The government wants financial support for the weakened economy after the COVID pandemic. Possibilities for legal migration to the EU were also on the agenda at the meetings with the Commission. Negotiations are also likely to take place on a deportation agreement; the Senegalese authorities are to „take back“ not only their own nationals but also those of other countries if they can prove that they have travelled through the country to the EU and have received an exit order there.

Deployment in territorial waters

Senegal is surrounded by more than 2,600 kilometres of external border; like the neighbouring countries of Mali, Gambia, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, the government has joined the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Similar to the Schengen area, the agreement also regulates the free movement of people and goods in a total of 15 countries. Only at the border with Mauritania, which left ECOWAS in 2001, are border security measures being stepped up.

It is therefore possible that a Frontex operation in Senegal will not focus on securing the land borders as in the Western Balkans, but on monitoring the maritime border. After the „Canary Islands crisis“ in 2006 with an increase in the number of refugee crossings, Frontex coordinated the Joint Operation „Hera“ off the islands in the Atlantic; it was the first border surveillance mission after Frontex was founded. Departures towards the Canary Islands are mostly from the coast north of Senegal’s capital Dakar, and many of the people in the boats come from neighbouring countries.

The host country of „Hera“ has always been Spain, which itself has bilateral migration control agreements with Senegal. Authorities there participate in the communication network „Seahorse Atlantic“, with which the Spanish gendarmerie wants to improve surveillance in the Atlantic. Within the framework of „Seahorse“, the Guardia Civil is also allowed to conduct joint patrols in the territorial waters of Senegal, Mauritania and Cape Verde. The units in „Hera“ were also the only Frontex mission allowed to navigate the countries‘ twelve-mile zone with their vessels. Within the framework of „Hera“, however, it was not possible for Frontex ships to dock on the coasts of Senegal or to disembark intercepted refugees there.

Spain wants to lead Frontex mission

Two years ago, the government in Madrid terminated the joint maritime mission in the Atlantic. According to the daily newspaper „El Pais“, relations between Spain and Frontex were at a low point after the border agency demanded more control over the resources deployed in „Hera“. Spain was also said to be unhappy with Frontex’s role in the Canary Islands. The agency had seconded two dozen officers to the Canary Islands to fingerprint and check identity documents after a sharp increase in crossings from Senegal and Mauritania in 2020. According to the International Organization for Migration, at least 1,200 people died or went missing when the crossing in 2021. The news agency AFP quotes the Spanish NGO Caminando Fronteras which puts this number at over 4,400 people. Also the Commissioner Johansson said that 1,200 were likely underestimated.

The new situation on the Canary Islands is said to have prompted Frontex and the government in Madrid to advocate the envisaged launch of the joint operation in Senegal. With a status agreement, Frontex would be able to hand over refugees taken on board to Senegalese authorities or bring them back to the country itself by ship. The Guardia Civil wants to take over the leadership of such an operation, writes El Pais with reference to Spanish government circles. The government in Dakar is also said to have already informed the EU of its readiness for such an effort.

The idea for an operational Frontex deployment in Senegal is at least three years old. Every year, Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri assesses in a report on the implementation of the EU’s External Maritime Borders Regulation whether refugees rescued in its missions could disembark in the respective eligible third countries. In the annual report for 2018, Leggeri attested to the government in Senegal’s compliance with basic fundamental and human rights. While Frontex did not even consider disembarking refugees in Libya, Tunisia or Morocco, the director believes this would be possible with Senegal – as well as Turkey.

Currently, the EU and its agencies have no concrete plans to conclude status agreements with other African countries, but Mauritania is also under discussion. Frontex is furthermore planning working (not status) arrangements with other governments in North and East Africa. Libya is of particular interest; after such a contract, Frontex could also complete Libya’s long-planned connection to the surveillance network EUROSUR. With a working agreement, the border agency would be able to regularly pass on information from its aerial reconnaissance in the Mediterranean to the Libyan coast guard, even outside of measures to counter distress situations at sea.

Image: Opening of Frontex AFIC in Senegal 2019 (Frontex).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.

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