Frontex instructs Morocco to rescue immigrants
Italian agents participate in a Frontex operation in the Strait, in October 2019.Marcos Moreno

The European border agency (Frontex) has been instructing Morocco in the interception and rescue of immigrants on the high seas for at least two years. Since September 2019, Moroccans have participated in four training courses and missions on the high seas in Greece and Malta, according to a response from the agency itself to the German MEP Özlem Demirel, representative of the Die Linke party in the European Parliament. This Frontex cooperation was known with Libya, but not with Morocco, more in favor of bilateral alliances with Spain than with the EU.

Participation in search and rescue missions in the riparian countries from which most immigrants leave is a priority for the EU. It is also the case for Spain, which has been working bilaterally in this area with Algeria and Morocco and has financed the training of coastguards in countries such as Senegal and Mauritania for more than a decade. The strategy of the 27 and their border control agency, however, is not only to rescue boats and reduce lethality on these deadly routes, but to reinforce neighboring countries to prevent migrants from reaching European shores.

Frontex does not detail the content or duration of the courses, but it does provide some clues. The first mission took a Moroccan and an Egyptian representative to the Greek island of Chíos in September 2019. There they participated as observers in a search and rescue exercise. In January 2020, the experience was repeated in Malta, this time with theory and practical exercises on boarding boats by the Coast Guard.

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Two months later, in March 2020, Moroccan and Egyptian representatives traveled to Estonia where they were presented with the facilities, resources and technologies of the local authorities. Already in a pandemic, in December 2020, representatives of the Gendarmerie, the Royal Navy and the Moroccan Minister of the Interior virtually participated in a technical meeting with Frontex experts in which they “introduced each other and presented the respective activities” of their coastguard.

The Moroccans also traveled to Warsaw in October 2019, in “the first joint meeting of the Frontex-Morocco committee” at the agency’s headquarters. Representatives of the Royal Gendarmerie and the Royal Navy participated in it, along with a larger delegation chaired by the Moroccan Ministry of the Interior. In the same framework, another virtual meeting was held last October.

Approach to Morocco

African countries are not generally in favor of negotiating with Frontex. They prefer bilateral relations with countries, because they tend to get tangible things out of them, such as ships and other means, while agreements with the European agency usually only involve training.

The CEO of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, however, has recently sought an approach to deal directly with Morocco. On a visit to Rabat in June 2019, the Frenchman praised the “considerable efforts” of a “strategic partner” of the EU and discussed with Moroccan officials in charge of migration issues how to develop greater cooperation, according to the Moroccan Press Agency. . This visit marked the turning point and the new strategy: the training courses for Moroccan officers would fall within this new framework of relations between the European agency and the African country.

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“Frontex has entered Morocco like an elephant in a china shop,” criticizes a command of the Spanish State Security Forces and Corps, with extensive experience in immigration matters. According to this source, the scope of the training that has been given to a few Moroccan officers is limited, and the counterparts for Frontex, for the moment, as well. But Rabat, he says, “has allowed himself to be loved”.

This command censures the fact that Frontex has made a unilateral approach to the African country, when the agency should pass for its dialogue with Morocco through Spain, a traditional partner of the Alawite kingdom in the fight against irregular migration: “Frontex has to coordinate with the Member State that has interests there, the same happens in Libya with the Italians ”. In his opinion, the relationship between Madrid and Rabat, with good intelligence channels, is to date more fruitful than the one Frontex has been able to establish “by waging war on its own”.

Morocco’s collaboration in helping migrants in the Alboran Strait and Sea, where Frontex has Operation Indalo deployed, goes through ups and downs. In 2018, when more than 57,000 immigrants arrived on Spanish shores, a historical record, it became clear that the dynamics of the rescues with Spain were not flowing. The claims of the Spanish authorities regarding the lack of response or the slow reaction of the Royal Navy when they were informed that there was a dinghy in distress were recurrent and a third of the Maritime Rescue operations were carried out in Moroccan waters. Cooperation began to improve as of February 2019, coinciding with a visit by King Felipe VI to Rabat and the financial and diplomatic push of the EU and Spain in the country.

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“Frontex is cooperating with the North African coastguard to a greater extent than it has disclosed so far,” says MEP Özlem Demirel. The German sees in these initiatives “another proof of how the agency is becoming more and more autonomous and uncontrollable” and points out how this cooperation is, in reality, a way of engaging the African coastguards “in the surveillance of Fortress Europe” .

With this type of training, according to an agency spokesperson, it is intended to share “best practices” in areas such as search and rescue of immigrants at sea. The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) is investigating the European border agency Frontex for suspicions of harassment, misconduct and also for alleged illegal returns of migrants in Greek waters.

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