Frontex: Guardians of the EU?


    Introduction to Frontex

    Frontex was established in October 2004, under the European Council Regulation (EC) 2007/2004 (source). The EU titled the agency the ‘European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders’ and designed it to act as a complementary agency to national authorities. However, the EU updated Frontex’s remit in 2016 and expanded its operational tasks. Subsequently, the agency was renamed into the European Border and Coast Guard Agency with greater powers of coordination and operation. A mandate amendment in 2019 gave Frontex even more powers. The additional powers also included a strengthening of the agency’s return operations of irregular migrants and came with a large increase in human and financial resources (source). 

    The goal of Frontex is indeed “to support EU member states and Schengen-associated countries in the management of the EU’s external borders and the fight against cross-border crime” (source). Significantly, they accomplish their mission by sharing intelligence between member states and providing operational support to border forces in countries facing pressure from migratory trends.

    Migration in Europe

    Frontex agency figures show that there has been a 300% increase in migrant arrivals in the Central Mediterranean in the first 3 months of the year (source). Furthermore, climate change and the conflict in Sudan are potential causes of this trend. The main migration routes into Europe include the following (source):

    Central Mediterranean

    This route involves travelling from Libya or Tunisia to Italy or Malta. Between January and October 2021, approximately 55,000 migrants utilised this route.

    Eastern Mediterranean

    This route involves migrants travelling from Turkey to Greece. This route is particularly popular for refugees travelling from Syria.

    Western Mediterranean and Atlantic

    Both of these routes lead migrants to Spain. Significantly, some migrants travel from Morocco straight to the mainland, whilst others travel from Western Sahara over to the Spanish Islands of the Canaries.

    Eastern Europe

    This route became particularly popular in 2021, when approximately 6600 migrants attempted to cross the EU border into Poland from Belarus. Migrants utilising this route primarily come from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

    Main Tasks of Frontex

    Frontex carries out a variety of tasks including (Source):

    • Monitoring migration flows and trends
    • Carrying out risk analyses and vulnerability assessments
    • Coordinating and organising joint operations and rapid border interventions 
    • Assisting EU member states with return operations
    • Fighting organised cross-border crime and terrorism 
    • Training of member states’ border guards and experts 

    As previously discussed, their remit has evolved over time and they have gained greater responsibilities and powers.

    Diagram showing the main tasks of Frontex.
    Frontex Main Tasks; Credit to: Frontex Official Website (


    Executive Director

    Firstly, the executive director of Frontex is the manager of the organisation. The current Executive Director of Frontex is Dr Hans Leijtens from the Netherlands (source). For the most part, associates have described Hans Leijtens as “a cop with strong diplomatic skills” (source) and Frontex appointed him on 1st March 2023 (source). He was previously the Director-General in the Netherlands Tax and Customs Administration.

    Deputy Executive Directors

    The Deputy Executive Directors each oversee specific tasks of the agency and all report directly to executive director Leijtens (source).

    Frontex Management Board

    The Management board are in charge of overseeing the activities of the agency (source). The board has a chairman, Alexander Fritsch; a Deputy Chairman, Neville Xuereb; and series of members from a variety of member states. The management board is certainly responsible for controlling the functions of the agency including:

    • Formalising the budget 
    • Ensuring transparency in all decision-making processes of the agency
    • Appointing the Executive and Deputy Executive Directors

    The Standing Corps

    The Standing corps of Frontex is the EU’s first ever uniformed law enforcement service (source). 

    Frontex only established the unit recently, at the end of 2019 (source). For the most part, the main tasks of the Standing Corps is to assist with border checks and provide support to migrant management. The Corps consists of four categories of officers:

    1.  Guards directly employed by Frontex who are deployed to different missions. 
    2. Long-term officers who are placed on secondment from an EU member state.
    3. Short-term officers who are placed on secondment from an EU member state
    4. Reserve of EU member states that are readily available to assist on rapid border interventions.
    Image shows a line of Frontex Standing corps personnel. The members are dressed in navy blue uniforms.
    Members of the Frontex Standing Corps; Credit to: Frontex Official Website (


    Rapid Border Interventions (RABIT)

    Rapid border interventions are designed to bring immediate assistance to an EU Member State that is under urgent and exceptional pressure at its external border, especially related to large number of non-EU nationals trying to enter its territory illegally

    Frontex 2021 (source)

    States must implement a number of steps in order for Frontex to carry out a RABIT (Source) : 

    1. A member state must request such an intervention by providing a description of the situation. The Executive Director will then send experts to decide on whether a RABIT is required. 
    2. An Operational Plan is drawn up and officers are deployed. The agency can then ask member states to contribute additional officers if this is required.
    3. An operational team will perform tasks and exercise power from border guards of the member states.

    March 2020 RABIT Operation in Greece

    On 1st March 2020, the Greek government sent a request to Frontex for a RABIT to handle the migration challenges at the southern sea border with Turkey (source). Consequently, Frontex’s RABIT team provided 100 staff, ships, helicopters and aeroplanes to join the 500 Frontex officers already deployed.

    Patrolling of the Mediterranean and Operation Themis

    As previously discussed, the Mediterranean is an extremely popular route for migrants to enter the EU. Therefore, this is a key operational area for Frontex.

    Operation Themis began in February 2018 and was a major operation in collaboration with the Italian Coast Guard (source). Specifically, Themis involved Frontex patrolling the Adriatic sea between Italy and Eastern Europe to reduce drug trafficking and the flow of migrants. The terms of the operation meant that Frontex was obliged to send migrants to the nearest EU port, rather than sending them to Italy. This assisted ITaly in reducing the flow of incoming migrants to their borders.


    Fortex has a budget of approximately €1 billion (source) and thus, it is not surprising that they have substantial resources to support their mission.


    The EU border agency possess 333 maritime vessels including (source):

    • Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV)
    • Coastal Patrol Vessels (CPV)
    • Coastal Patrol Boats (CPB)
    • Fast Interception boats


    Frontex also possesses 89 aerial vehicles including the ‘Fixed Wing Aircraft (FWA)’ and helicopters (source). Furthermore, the agency equips their aircrafts with live video streams to the Frontex Situation Centre (source).

    Frontex Aircraft Fly 1000 Mission

    Border Surveillance Equipment

    Frontex and other EU agencies, such as the European Maritime Safety Agency, gather information from a wide range of technology including (source): 

    • Drones
    • Ships
    • Satellite imagery
    • Weather reports
    • Social media 

    Frontex’s surveillance data is fed into the European Border Surveillance system (EUROSUR) in order to share information between member states of the EU (source). Additionally, Frontex utilises drones to identify boats in distress (source).

    Technological Advances

    Frontex has sponsored research on the use of artificial intelligence for border controls including the use of biometric data and surveillance technology (source). Above all, their main use of data technology is for risk analysis to aid decision making.


    OLAF Investigation

    An investigation by EU anti-fraud agency OLAF revealed wrongdoing at Frontex and resulted in the resignation of previous Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri (source). Furthermore, Leggeri faced criticism by the European parliament for failing to protect human rights of people seeking asylum in the EU (source). 

    The aforementioned report by OLAF was published in October 2022 and found that several officials at Frontex had engaged in misconduct by covering up illegal pushbacks of migrants. 
    Executive Director Hans Leijtens described the OLAF investigation as a ‘wakeup call’ for the agency and has additionally expressed a determination to improve transparency and eliminate the “toxic atmosphere” (source).

    Human Rights Violations

    In June 2021, Human Rights Watch accused Frontex of failing to safeguard people against serious human rights violations at the borders (source). 

    “Frontex has repeatedly failed to take effective action when allegations of human rights violations are brought to its attention,” – said Eva Cossé, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch (source).

    Furthermore, in 2008, a group of NGO’s presented a statement to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees criticising Frontex (source). The letter stated that the role of Frontex was too broad and often blocked asylum-seekers from claiming protection.

    Relations with Other Organisations

    Libyan Coast Guard

    In 2016, Frontex began training the Libyan coast guard as part of the EU’s Mediterranean military mission against migrant smugglers (source). Consequently, this operation faced vast criticism after allegations that the Libyan coast guard were pulling back those aiming to flee the state. An investigation by Le Monde found that Frontex was sharing surveillance intelligence with Libyan authorities (source). This assistance form Frontex allowed Libyan authorities to locate small boats, despite Libya not possessing their own aircraft surveillance. Frontex has denied collaborating with the Libyan coast guard.

    The Future of Frontex

    It is highly unlikely that Frontex’s power will slow down in the coming years. The EU has proposed a €22.6 billion budget increase between 2021 and 2027 for ‘migration and border management’ (source). Furthermore, the Frontex 2022/2023 Risk Assessment recognises the likelihood that migration, and in particular migrant smuggling, “will remain an increasing trend” (source). The real question is whether new Executive Director Hans Leijtens will be able to improve the reputation of the agency. For instance, he has vowed to make the agency more transparent and has increased the number of fundamental rights monitors after stating that the OLAF investigation was a wakeup call for the agency (source). Only time will tell whether the Frontex will truly be able to improve the protection of rights for migrants.

    Eimear Duggan
    Eimear Duggan
    Eimear is an intelligence analyst currently pursuing the International Masters programme in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies (IMSISS). Her main areas of interest are Balkan security, European affairs, and extremism.

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