The EU at odds with the refugee issue – again

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Warsaw is the capital city of Poland, the EU country that receives (and welcomes, in earnest) the major part of the refugee outflow from a Ukraine buckling under the ongoing Russian invasion. Warsaw is also the seat of Frontex, the European front-line institution tasked with borders surveillance/control; in that capacity it has dealt with earlier refugee flows in the Aegean.

The show of genuine welcome and support on the part of the Polish population to the refugees flowing in has been more than equal to the institutional welcome extended by the EU, in the form of activating the Temporary Protection Directive, that offers (for the first time ever) immediate support to refugees, quick assistance and – first and foremost – a clear legal status. A new “Solidarity Platform” was set up by the EU in a matter of days, so as to grant to Ukrainian refugees fleeing war “the right to accommodation, healthcare, access to the job market and education”. Taken along the warmth of Polish citizens – as well as of Romanians, Slovaks and Moldovans – in greeting refugees and striving to cater to their immediate needs, such a mobilization has much to say for the EU of 2022. Popular sentiment all around the continent, from Germany or Sweden to Greece followed suit. Even post-Brexit UK has set up an innovative voluntary housing scheme.

Now to the other side of the coin: According to the Frontex own charter, – “Europe’s first uniformed service [strives to] contribute to the development of the [EU] integrated border management”. To Frontex “[its] 10.000 border and coast guard officers help European countries with border control and migration management […] addressing migratory challenges and contributing to Europe’s security”. Frontex, in its own mission statement signed by Fabrice Leggeri – a French-origin civil servant, seconded to Brussels and currently in charge of Frontex –, declares itself “proud of its achievements”. Problem is that the EU’s own Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) has had for some time now Frontex in its sights. Why?

As European media ranging from Der Spiegel to the Guardian, Politico or Liberation have reported, members of Frontex have been found to blatantly violate EU regulations on human rights in covering-up, or even assisting Greek authorities in systematic pushbacks on EU external borders near the Aegean islands. Greek officials have rigorously rejected such claims, but the material looked into by OLAF (not exactly an NGO!) was convincing enough for disciplinary measures to be recommended. The OLAF report has been presented by OLAF Director General (Finnish) Ville Itala to the European Parliament (not an NGO, either!) causing consternation among those who followed the procedure. “Senior management” of Frontex is reportedly involved in cover-up of possible legal violations of EU/international humanitarian law. Leggeri may have been personally implicated in push-back cover-ups.

The yawning gap from one end of the divide to the other, that is from the warm welcome of Ukrainian refugees to the thinly-veiled if not outright hostile rejection of Syrian, Afghan, Middle-Eastern or African ones is glaringly obvious. If one goes back to the over-cautious (if not outright hostile) attitude of Visegrad-plus countries towards earlier refugee waves, one cannot but single out the – unpleasant, but effective – consistency of Hungry under Victor Orban: back then, as now, it had and keeps a stance of aggressive rejection. For the rest of Europe, it would seem that attitudes over the refugee issue have everything to do with colour and creed.