The former deputy head of Europe’s border and coastguard agency has said the state of the beleaguered force “pains” him and that it is vulnerable to the “alarming” rise of populism across the continent.
In his first interview since leaving office, Gil Arias Fernández, former deputy director at Frontex and once tipped for the top post, said he was deeply worried about the agency’s damaged reputation, its decision to arm officers, and its inability to stop the far-right infiltrating its ranks, amid anti-migrant movements across Europe.
“Weapons are not needed for Frontex operations,” he said. “They are more of a problem than a help.”
Frontex is experiencing the most acute crisis in its 16-year history. The agency is being investigated by the European parliament over allegations of illegal pushbacks of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean and its head, Fabrice Leggeri, is facing calls to quit over allegations he misled the EU commission. Leggeri has strongly rejected allegations about the agency’s operations.
Arias Fernández, 65, now retired, lost out on the top role to Leggeri in 2015. He admits he did not get on with Leggeri when they worked together for a year.
“From the first moment I saw that he had a perhaps excessive eagerness to change things. Maybe it was to put his personal stamp on things,” said Arias Fernández.
He said decisions made by one of the EU’s most powerful agencies had led to complicity in human rights violations.
“Frontex pains me,” he said. “Especially for the staff, because they don’t deserve what they are going through. We saw the agency as an instrument to help the member states and the migrants. These events put a dent in all that effort.
“I do not believe that the agency has proactively violated the rights of migrants, but there are reasons to believe that it has turned a blind eye.”
In January 2015, after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, several European politicians suggested the presence of refugees among the terrorists.
When the media asked Frontex about any link between refugees and the Paris attack, Arias Fernández, a former police commissioner in Spain, told them there was no evidence.
Arias Fernández believes this cost him the director’s job.
The political pressure made the job a tough one, Arias Fernández said. “There is a lot of pressure on the part of certain states to put their people in positions of responsibility. Whether the agency is headed by a Frenchman or a Finn may determine whether there is more or less sensitivity to migration problems. The agency is independent, but ‘independent’ should be put in quotation marks because without a fluid relationship with the [European] commission, you have a hard time.
“Operations have always been conducted unarmed and there have never been any problems. In operations where Libyan tribal clans smuggling migrants shot in the air to frighten the patrols, even there it was not considered appropriate to carry weapons. In this case, weapons are more a problem than a help. The proposal of carrying weapons came from the European Commission, which I do not know to what extent is influenced by lobbyists in Brussels.
“There is no filter in the recruitment system. You cannot prevent people with extremist ideas from entering, unless they clearly express their position in favour of hate crimes, xenophobia and racism.”
Arias Fernández pointed to the dearth of human rights training for Frontex officers. “But lack of information should not be used to justify certain things,” he said. “The incidents under investigation were carried out by Greek units following the instructions of their commanders.
“When there are irregularities like this in operations, it is usually because there are instructions from the authorities responsible for coordinating the operation. The decision to turn back a boat with migrants is not taken by an officer but is an order from above.”
He said he appreciated borders needed a certain level of security to know who was entering but added that immigration was vitally important for the survival of all European states.
“I come to this conclusion because there are studies that show that if we do not resort to immigration and other incentives, the EU will have serious problems and the welfare state will be a chimera. We should learn these lessons. In the first half of the pandemic, migrants saved our bacon.
“In Europe, movements that use populism are growing at an alarming rate, and the fight against immigrants is one of those arguments. States are excessively prudent in not touching this issue. The commission presented the new pact on migration and asylum, which contains no proposals for channelling migration through legal channels. They tried to satisfy all the blocs, Visegrád [Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia], southern states, northern states, and I fear that in the end it satisfies no one.”
Arias Fernández said the lack of migrants being allowed into Europe would have a severe economic impact amid an ageing workforce: “Who will pay the pensions of the growing number of pensioners?”
A Frontex spokesman denied the agency ignored migrants’ rights. “The executive director of Frontex has written several letters to the Greek authorities to address incidents that raised his concerns. Two inquiries, including one that was conducted by representatives of national authorities and the European Commission, have found no evidence of violations of human rights in Frontex operations in Greece.”
The spokesman also denied that officers had always conducted operations while unarmed, saying: “Before this year, Frontex relied exclusively on officers provided by national authorities, who brought their own weapons to the agency’s operational activities. Today, Frontex has its own operational arm, the standing corps, whose core is made up of officers directly employed by the agency who require weapons for self-defence and to protect others.
“Since Mr Arias left more than half-a-decade ago, Frontex has undergone a massive transformation that included a much bigger focus on cross-border crime, which means a greater chance that our officers may encounter life-threatening situations while patrolling the borders or performing other duties.”
Andrés Manuel López Obrador: Mexican president downplays tensions with US over Americas summit | International
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sought on Tuesday to downplay the tensions that have risen with the United States over the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. The leftist leader has said he would skip the summit and send a representative instead, if Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were excluded from the meeting. But he argued on Tuesday that this position is not going to harm bilateral relations with the US. “One shouldn’t think that, if, in this case, we don’t agree on the summit, there is going to be any break [in relations]. That is not going to happen under any circumstance,” he said at his morning press conference.
A US delegation was set to arrive in Mexico on Wednesday to discuss the upcoming summit, which will be held from June 6 to 10. The delegation, led by Senator Christopher Dodd, seeks to ensure that López Obrador will participate in the regional meeting. Ahead of the visit, the US ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, said on Monday that “it is very important that Mexico participates” in the summit. If López Obrador boycotts the event, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard will attend in his place.
The White House has not yet made a decision about whether to invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, but Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols told EL PAÍS that the US government is currently leaning toward excluding “countries that disrespect democracy.”
López Obrador supported his position to skip the meeting by invoking the Mexican Constitution, which enshrines the principle of non-intervention in foreign policy. “We have to stick to the principles of our foreign policy, of non-intervention and self-determination of the people, and we believe that no one should be excluded and that the independence and sovereignty of the peoples must be asserted,” he said on Tuesday. However, by actively supporting Havana, the government has shaken up regional policy and created a separate bloc with countries such as Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, which also want all countries to be included in the summit.
While maintaining his position, the Mexican president was also at pains to highlight Mexico’s strong relationship with the US administration of President Joe Biden. “There is a very good relationship. And we are working in a coordinated manner in economic, trade, and of course migration and security matters,” he said. “Independently of how it is resolved, we are always going to have a relationship with the US that is based on respect and friendship, and even more so with the people of the United States. The US government has treated us with respect and we also have a lot of respect and admiration for the American people.”
Since Biden’s arrival at the White House in January 2021, the two leaders have been in frequent contact. While they have had disagreements on issues such as security, migration and energy policy, both want to address the bilateral agenda through negotiation, which marks a change from the threats and intimidation that characterized the Trump administration.
Learn lessons of Rwandan genocide and act now to stop Ethiopian war, UN urged | Global development
African civil society groups have accused the United Nations of inaction over atrocities in Ethiopia, warning in a letter that it had not learned the lessons of the 1994 Rwanda genocide and that the “situation risks repeating itself in Ethiopia today”.
Tens of thousands of people are thought to have been killed and millions more displaced since war broke out between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party of the country’s northern region, in November 2020.
All of the parties in the war have been accused of crimes including arbitrary killings, mass rape and torture, while ethnic Tigrayans across the country have been subject to mass arrests amid a spike in hate speech, which has seen the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, refer to the Tigrayan rebels as “weeds” and “cancer”.
In the letter to the UN secretary general, António Guterres, 12 African civil society groups including the Kampala-based Atrocities Watch Africa, the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa and Nigeria’s Centre for Democracy and Development called on him to “provide leadership in ending the ongoing war in Ethiopia”.
“Twenty-eight years ago, the security council similarly failed to recognise the warning signs of genocide in Rwanda or act to stop it,” the signatories said, adding: “We are concerned that the situation is repeating itself in Ethiopia today. We call on you to learn the lessons from Rwanda and act now.”
In November 2021, the UN security council issued a statement expressing concern over the fighting, but it has yet to take any concrete steps towards resolving the conflict.
Last month, a report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused forces from the Amhara region of waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans “with the acquiescence and possible participation of Ethiopian federal forces”.
Dismas Nkunda, head of Atrocities Watch Africa, said: “With reports of ethnic cleansing coming out of western Tigray, there is real reason for concern that some of these crimes reach the level of genocide, and it’s essential that the United Nations grasp the seriousness of the current situation and respond accordingly.”
The UN human rights council has appointed a team to investigate abuses committed during the conflict, although the government has vowed not to cooperate.
Tigray has been largely cut off from the rest of Ethiopia since the fighting began, with transport and communications links cut. About 90% of the region’s 5.75 million population are in need of aid, and the region’s health bureau estimates that at least 1,900 children under the age of five died of starvation in the past year.
In March, the government unilaterally declared a “humanitarian truce” to allow supplies to reach the region, but only a handful of aid trucks have arrived since then.
The letter urges the UN security council to press for “immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access [to Tigray]” and “impose an arms embargo on all parties to the conflict”.
The signatories also call for deployment of an international peacekeeping force led by the African Union, which has its headquarters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
“Such action will be vital to assisting the Ethiopian men, women and children who have been suffering both direct hostilities, associated human rights violations and obstructed humanitarian aid,” they said.
‘Narco-tunnels’ become a factor in US-Mexico relations | International
More than 300 meters long, 10 meters deep and fully illuminated: so is the latest narco-tunnel that authorities have found in Tijuana, on the border between Mexico and the United States. The underground corridor was used to traffic drugs to San Diego, California, and has since been closed. The discovery was not an accident: US Ambassador Ken Salazar had warned last week of the presence of over 200 tunnels during a visit to the border city.
The tunnel was discovered last weekend after a joint operation by the Mexican Army, the Tijuana Police and the Attorney General’s Office. The entrance is located under a house in the Nueva Tijuana neighborhood, a few meters from the Otay border crossing where Salazar made those statements. The passageway, reinforced with metal beams, remains under police protection. Authorities have not identified which criminal group used it, nor have any arrests been made.
Mexican authorities emphasized that communication with their US counterparts had been “close” and that bilateral collaboration had been key to finding the tunnel. Less than 48 hours earlier, Salazar had made the same points. “Working with the Mexican government, we have a very good collaboration in trying to eradicate these tunnels, which should not be here, because this is where a lot of crime happens, a lot of suffering,” said the ambassador in statements collected by the weekly newspaper Zeta. “This must stop,” he added.
Salazar’s visit to Tijuana included a tour of a narco-tunnel discovered in 2009. The passageway, which also crosses the border wall, is known as Gálvez and is 270 meters long and 30 meters deep. The structure’s construction was attributed to the Arellano Félix cartel, a criminal organization created in the 1980s, which dominated the movement of drugs to the United States in that area for decades.
After the tour, Salazar, senior US anti-narcotics officials and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard held a press conference announcing a $4.2 billion investment to reinforce the border. Ebrard exhorteed the authorities of both countries to “be more effective at the border against fentanyl, drugs and weapons that come and go on both sides.”
“[We intend] to ensure that this border is a place where people can walk from one place to another safely and where trade continues in a better way than now,” Salazar said. Last month, Texas governor Greg Abbott imposed tough security checks that virtually paralyzed cross-border trade. (More than 2,000 of the 3,000 kilometers between the two countries pass through Abbott’s state.)
After the White House’s urging to stop drug trafficking from Mexico, the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador has urged the United States to do the same with the smuggling of firearms. More than 500,000 US weapons arrive in the Latin American country each year, according to Mexican authorities, who began working to prosecute the US arms industry last year.
Less than a week ago, another tunnel made headlines in Culiacán, the stronghold of the Sinaloa Cartel, the organization historically led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. A young man who was sleeping on the sofa in his house fell after a hole opened in the ground. The hole in the floor was attributed to the existence of the underground passageway, found in 2011.
El Chapo had escaped in July 2015 from the Altiplano prison, a high-security prison in central Mexico, through a tunnel that took members of his criminal organization more than a year to build. In the videos broadcast from his cell, the criminal leader is seen disappearing from one moment to another after climbing into a hole in the floor. Guzmán traveled more than a kilometer underground on a motorcycle. The capo was captured in early 2016 and extradited to the United States a year later. Guzmán had previously managed to evade several capture operations through underground networks of passages. The first tunnel attributed to him dates from 1989.
The longest known narco-tunnel measured more than two kilometers, and its discovery was announced in January 2020. It had tracks, air conditioning, an elevator and electricity. The entrance was in Tijuana and the exit in San Diego. “The sophistication of this tunnel demonstrates the determination and monetary resources of the cartels,” the US border patrol said at the time. Despite the spectacular announcement, the news came with no information about arrests, as with the last tunnel discovered last weekend.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador: Mexican president downplays tensions with US over Americas summit | International
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