Hans Leijtens, the head of the EU’s border agency Frontex, has said he is reluctant to launch operations in Africa, as discussions continue to secure agreements with Senegal and Mauritania.

“The western African countries, but, perhaps in general, African countries are much more difficult to cooperate with and I have a lot of reluctance to be very frank,” he told MEPs on Thursday (7 September).

The comments come at a time when the EU is piling on pressure for countries in North Africa, such as Tunisia, to stem migrant sea embarkations, primarily towards Italy.

It also comes amid renewed emphasis, headed by Austria, to outsource asylum elsewhere, possibly Rwanda and as applications for protection within the European Union hovers just over half million so far this year.

But Leijtens’ statements made at the European Parliament’s committee on human rights poses additional questions on how the agency intends to operate in Senegal and Mauritania.

“I think it’s obvious that the negotiations should have all the checks and balances we need,” he said, of the two African states.

Both countries have sketchy rights records. Over the summer, Human Rights Watch, an NGO, condemned Dakar for its violent crackdown on opposition and dissent.

In Niger, the agency pulled its liaison officer following the July military coup. But Tunisia, another repressive state recently courted by the EU, Leijtens appeared just as circumspect.

“We are in the stage that we plan to meet on an operational level in the near future to sort of get acquainted with each other,” he said.

“But there is no plan whatsoever right now to start a cooperation on the short term,” he added.

Any such plans also comes with an immunity clause for Frontex agents — posing questions on accountability should things go wrong.

Outside the EU, the agency is currently operating in Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia and has deployed some 600 staff. And it has working arrangements with 18 countries, as well as liaison offices in others.

But it has also come under intense scrutiny for helping the Libyans in turning back vessels of people where they face violence, murder, rape and slavery.

NGOs say those pull-backs are also being carried out by Libya’s Tarek Ben Ziyad brigade in Malta’s search and rescue zone.

“We have no relationship with whomever in Libya except the [Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre] and we only notify them in case of a distress case,” he said, when pressed for a comment.

Others, including Human Rights Watch, says the agency’s use of aerial surveillance makes it complicit in the abuses carried out in Libya.

Over 2,300 people have died so far this year trying to cross the Mediterranean in the hopes of landing on a European coastline. Last year, it was 2,400 spread out over 12 months, according to the International Organization for Migration, a UN body.