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Thursday, December 7, 2023

EU’s border agency Frontex denies illegal migrant pushbacks

The managing board of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) said Thursday it did not find evidence of rights violations in cases it reviewed where guards were accused of illegal migrant pushbacks from Greece toward Turkish territorial waters in the Aegean sea.

But the body added that its conclusions only applied to some of the disputed incidents, saying it needs additional clarifications to complete the remaining reviews.

Members, including representatives from European Union nations and two from the European Commission, discussed an internal report on allegations that Frontex guards helped force migrants out of EU waters and back to Turkey.

The board said in a statement that “on the basis of the information provided, it could not establish evidence of fundamental rights violations.”

But it added that it was “very concerned” that the agency had not provided information on certain incidents in time.

It called on Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri to “immediately provide the missing information” and to implement various recommended agency improvements.

The meeting came after media and rights organizations had documented multiple cases of Frontex border officers, alongside national counterparts in EU countries, forcing migrants back, particularly along Greece’s sea border with Turkey.

At least six incidents where Frontex units were involved in pushbacks near the islands of Lesbos and Samos between April 28 and Aug. 19 have been documented.

While the border agency is required to rescue migrants, the Frontex vessels patrolling the area sped past the overcrowded, inflatable boats, creating dangerous waves to force them to return to Turkish shores. A Frontex aircraft was also documented passing over migrants, who were seeking help at sea, but did not rescue them.

It was also reported that the German forces participating in the Frontex mission in the Aegean Sea helped the Greek coast guard push migrants back toward Turkish territorial waters during at least one incident.

Turkey and Greece have been key transit points for migrants aiming to cross into Europe, fleeing war and persecution to start new lives. Turkey has also accused Greece of large-scale pushbacks and summary deportations without access to asylum procedures, which is a violation of international law. It also accuses the EU of turning a blind eye to what it says is a blatant abuse of human rights.

In October, nearly 30 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) called on Greece to open an “urgent inquiry” into allegations that it was systematically pushing migrants back toward Turkey. The Turkish coast guard said it rescued over 300 migrants “pushed back by Greek elements to Turkish waters” in September alone. Citing what they say are credible reports, international rights groups have repeatedly called for an investigation.

Pushbacks are considered contrary to international refugee protection agreements, which say people shouldn’t be expelled or returned to a country where their life and safety might be in danger due to their race, religion, nationality or membership in a social or political group.

Such actions prevent asylum-seekers from making claims for refugee status, and if practiced indiscriminately against a group of migrants can constitute “refoulement” – a violation of EU human rights laws and the 1951 Geneva Convention.

The EU’s independent corruption watchdog confirmed this month that it was investigating Frontex over the allegations.

Reports said officials from the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) searched Frontex headquarters in the Polish capital Warsaw.

Several members of the European Parliament have called for Leggeri’s resignation, but Frontex said Wednesday the executive director had no plans to resign.

On Thursday, Leggeri tweeted: “I am pleased that so far the working group did not find evidence of any Frontex involvement in alleged pushbacks.”

The EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, for her part, said on Twitter that, “It is in the long-term interests of the agency that the recommendations are met and that the remaining open questions are resolved immediately.”

Created in 2004, Frontex has become the first EU agency to build up a standing, uniformed force. It aims to have 10,000 border guards on its payroll by 2027.

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