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An introduction to frontex: Its foundation and developments

Nina Perkowski is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.

In three articles to be published over the next three months, I introduce the agency, its history and developments, and some of the criticism that have been raised against it. In this article, I provide an outline of Frontex’s foundation, goals, tasks, and developments.

Within the first eight years of its existence, the EU border management agency Frontex has rapidly grown in size, power, and importance. It is now a key player in the EU’s external border management, patrolling large stretches of Europe’s southern and eastern borders and conducting research on current, as well as future, migratory movements towards the Union. While praised by the European Commission, Frontex has faced strong criticism from migrants’ rights activists and human rights organisations, who have questioned its respect for human rights and respect for the principle of non-refoulement.

After the formal decision to establish Frontex in 2004, the agency came into being in 2005 and carried out its first operations in 2006. Its foundation was part of a larger shift towards increased surveillance and control at the EU’s external borders. This control had come to be seen as vitally important when internal border controls were abolished between EU members of the Schengen area in 1995 (Neal, 2009).  

European states agreed to cooperate on matters of immigration, customs and law enforcement under the Schengen agreement, and then established this commitment inside the EU framework with the signing of the 1992 Maastricht and the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty. Through the eradication of internal border controls, one large EU territory with a single external frontier emerged. This territory was coined an ‘Area of Freedom, Security and Justice’ in the Amsterdam Treaty, and EU citizens were increasingly able to move freely and without restriction within its borders (Kostakopoulou, 2009).

The 1990s however, saw what some have referred to as the growing securitisation of migration policies. While movement within the EU became free, immigration from outside the EU was regarded with suspicion. Intense media coverage and heightened public concern accompanied changing migratory patterns after the end of the Cold War. The eastern enlargement of the European Union was seen as presenting new border management challenges. While border controls within the European Union were dismantled, controlling the external borders was perceived as ever more important. The ‘Area of Freedom, Security and Justice’, so it was argued, needed to be protected from external threats (Mitsilegas, Monar, & Rees, 2003).

In 2001, Germany and Italy advocated the creation of a European Border Police, a plan that was supported by the European Commission and the European Parliament. Scandinavian countries and the United Kingdom, however, were firmly opposed to the idea, seeing it as an infringement of their right to control their own borders (Léonard, 2009).

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were seen as conferring new urgency to the protection of external borders as migration became more firmly associated with crime and terrorism. As discussions about the creation of a European border force continued, the European Commission supported the idea of an operational EU border guard, while the Council of the European Union favoured a less far-reaching solution. After a so-called External Borders Practitioner Common Unit was seen to be ‘ineffective’ in coordinating Member States’ efforts to control their borders, in 2003 the Council eventually called for an examination of whether an operational structure to coordinate external border control would be necessary and effective (Neal, 2009).

The European Commission seized this opportunity and proposed the creation of an agency that would coordinate the operational cooperation among Member States more systematically and permanently. It then took less than a year for Frontex to be established in October 2004. In its essence, the establishment of Frontex has been described as a compromise between the community-focused approach of the European Commission and some Member States’ reluctance to give up part of their powers (Kasparek, 2010; Léonard, 2009). Creating the agency at great speed allowed for the effective exclusion of the European Parliament from the decision-making process, since it was only in 2005 that the co-decision procedure granted significantly more powers to the Parliament.

Frontex was thus founded as a coordinating agency that would improve and harmonise controlling standards throughout the EU, and facilitate cooperation among Member States. It began working in temporary facilities in Warsaw in 2005, and formally opened its headquarters there in early 2007. According to Art. 2(1) of its founding regulation of 2007, Frontex had six tasks, namely to:

‘(a) coordinate operational cooperation between Member States in the field of management of external borders;

(b) assist Member States on training of national border guards, including the establishment of common training standards;

(c) carry out risk analyses;

(d) follow up on the development of research relevant for the control and surveillance of external borders;

(e) assist Member States in circumstances requiring increased technical and operational assistance at external borders;

(f) provide Member States with the necessary support in organising joint return operations.’

To improve immigration and border control, it was also allowed to establish working agreements with third countries and organisations. Since its foundation, Frontex has grown rapidly in terms of size, budget, and powers. In 2006, its first operational year, the agency could dispose of 72 staff members and approximately €19 million. By 2011, Frontex had 313 staff members and its planned €86 million budget was increased to €118 million when large numbers of migrants and refugees arrived in Europe in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’. In addition to its own staff members, Frontex works with secondments of national border guards, who join the agency for a period of between 3 months and 4 years.

As important to Frontex’s development as its material growth has been the expansion of its mandate. In 2007, its founding regulation was amended to allow for the creation and deployment of Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABIT) in situations ‘of urgent and exceptional pressure, especially the arrival at points of the external borders of large numbers of third-country nationals trying to enter the territory of the Member State illegally’ (Article 1(1)). The amendments obliged Member States to provide personnel in these situations, and thus made ‘solidarity’ compulsory. In 2011, Frontex’s powers were expanded further by new amendments. The agency can now buy, own, and lease equipment, develop information exchange systems, and draw on a pool of European Border Guard Teams provided by Member States. The list of Frontex’ tasks in the amended regulation has grown significantly:

‘(a) initiate and carry-out or coordinate operational cooperation between Member States in the field of management of external borders;

(b) assist Member States on training of national border guards, including the establishment of common training standards;

(c) carry out risk analyses; including the assessment of the capacity of Member States to face threats and pressure at the external borders;

(d) participate in the development of research relevant for the control and surveillance of external borders;

(da) assist Member States in circumstances requiring increased technical and operational assistance at the external borders, taking into account that some situations may involve humanitarian emergencies and rescue at sea;

(e) assist Member States in circumstances requiring increased technical and operational assistance at external borders; especially those Member States facing specific and disproportionate pressures;

(ea) set up European Border Guard Teams that are to be deployed during joint operations, pilot projects and rapid interventions;

(f) provide Member States with the necessary support including, upon request, coordination or organisation of joint return operations;

(g) deploy border guards from the European Border Guard Teams to Member States in joint operations, pilot projects or in rapid interventions in accordance with Regulation (EC) No 863/2007;

(h) develop and operate in accordance with Regulation (EC) No 45/2001 information systems that enable swift and reliable exchanges of information regarding emerging risks at the external borders, including the Information and Coordination Network established by Council Decision 2005/267/EC;

(i) provide the necessary assistance to the development and operation of a European border surveillance system and, as appropriate, to the development of a common information sharing environment, including interoperability of systems’ (Article 2 of the amended regulation);

j) involve in technical cooperation on border management with third countries and deploy its own liaison officers in third countries;

g) collect, process personal data of migrants and exchange some of this data with EUROPOL.’

This altered task list easily shows how Frontex’s mandate has expanded within the first seven years of its existence. An independent agency of the EU, Frontex has experienced an incredibly fast expansion of resources, powers and responsibilities. In addition to its Warsaw headquarters, there is now a branch office in Piraeus in Greece and an office in Dakar, Senegal. Moreover, Frontex is central to the development of EUROSUR, a comprehensive ‘European border surveillance system’ aiming ‘to detect, identify, track and intercept persons attempting to enter the EU illegally outside border crossing points’ (Page 4 of the EUROSUR regulation).

Frontex is controlled by its Management Board, which consists of two representatives of the European Commission and one representative of each signatory state of the Schengen acquis. Very little information on Frontex’s activities and intelligence is available and many NGOs have highlighted the need for the agency to open up to public or parliamentary scrutiny – notably, Frontex’s risk analyses and information on current and past operations are not disclosed to those external to the organisation.

As part of the 2011 amendments, Frontex recently established a Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights. Ideally, this could mean that Frontex’s activities will be evaluated independently, at least regarding their impact on fundamental rights. Some of the doubts raised regarding the effectiveness of this forum will be discussed in the following articles.

It remains to be reiterated that Frontex has seen a period of intense growth and expansion since its foundation, and is now possibly the most important single actor in EU external border management. While Frontex has attracted a lot of attention and criticism, it should not be forgotten that it is ultimately one part of a greater European border policy of surveillance, restriction and control. As mentioned, the agency’s Management Board consists mostly of Member State representatives; its budget must be approved by the European Parliament. Justified and necessary scrutiny of Frontex should not deflect attention from the responsibilities of Member States and other EU institutions, and Frontex’s role within wider policies and practices.


Kasparek, B. (2010). ‘Borders and Populations in Flux: Frontex’ Place in the European Union’s Migration Management’. In M. Geiger & A. Pécoud (Eds.), The Politics of International Migration Management (pp. 119–140). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kostakopoulou, D. (2009). ‘The Area of Freedom, Security and Justice and the Political Morality of Migration and Integration’. A Right to Inclusion and Exclusion? Normative fault lines of the EU’s Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (pp. 65–92). Oxford: Hart Publishing.

Léonard, S. (2009). ‘The creation of FRONTEX and the politics of institutionalisation in the EU external borders policy’. Journal of Contemporary European Research, 5(3), 371–388.

Mitsilegas, V., Monar, J., & Rees, G. W. (2003). The European Union and Internal Security: Guardian of the People? Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Neal, A. W. (2009). ‘Securitization and Risk at the EU Border: The Origins of FRONTEX’. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 47(2), 333–356.

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