Tuesday

24th Nov 2020

Confusion over Frontex's Greek pushback investigation

  • Frontex officers in Greece in 2019 as part of its joint-operation Poseidon. The Warsaw-based border agency has seen its budget and staff rocket in recent years (Photo: Frontex)

The EU's border agency Frontex doesn't yet know how it will conduct its own internal inquiry into alleged 'pushbacks' of potential asylum seekers off the Greek coast.

"I'm afraid it's too early to discuss the details," a spokesperson at the Warsaw-based agency told EUobserver on Tuesday (27 October).

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The comment follows an announcement that Frontex had launched an internal inquiry, based on recent media reports that staff under its aegis helped prevent potential asylum seekers from landing on the Greek islands.

Such actions are illegal under international law.

The agency immediately denied any wrong-going, saying no documents or other materials have so far been found to substantiate any accusations.

When approached, Frontex's own fundamental rights officer deferred all questions to the agency's press contacts.

But even procedural details on how it intends to carry out that investigation, who will do it, and when it expects results remain unclear.

And a group of civil society experts which provides Frontex with advice on fundamental rights, known as the "consultative forum", doesn't know either.

Marta Ballestro from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees chairs that forum. She said it now intends to also ask Frontex similar questions.

"The forum will approach the agency today to seek information on the particulars of the said inquiry," she said, in an emailed statement.

In an annual report, out last month, the forum criticised Frontex for keeping people in the dark over possible violations.

The agency is supposed to collect from the field any forms of abuse in so-called "serious incident reports" that are then passed up the chain of command.

Frontex received only three such reports in 2018. Experts say it is an almost negligible figure, given that some 1,500 guards are deployed along the EU borders.

Frontex attributes the low figure to officers not being in the area at the time when a violation such as a pushback occurred.

But the latest accusations include video footage of a Frontex vessel preventing a boat full of people from landing on the Greek islands.

The agency appears to claim this is not evidence either.

"There is video evidence that #Frontex is involved in pushbacks. Now they have announced within two working days that they have done nothing wrong," said German Green MEP Erik Marquardt, in a tweet.

Investigate portal Bellingcat, along with other media, documented at least six incidents of pushbacks involving Frontex off the Greek coast.

The agency at the start of this week initially brushed off questions on whether it would probe the abuse - but appears to have since changed course following public pressure.

"If Frontex is indeed involved in pushback actions of refugees, this is completely unacceptable," EU interior commissioner Ylva Johansson told German radio on Monday.

She said Frontex's executive director Fabrice Leggeri must take full responsibility to investigate the cases and present a response into what happened.

Leggeri earlier this year dismissed another potential pushback incident involving a Danish crew on a Frontex vessel as "a misunderstanding."

The Danes at the time had been instructed by the Greek authorities to tow people seeking asylum out to sea. They refused.

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The European Commission says Frontex, the EU's border agency, has an obligation to investigate allegations that its vessels participated in illegal pushbacks of migrants off the Greek coast. Asked if it would, Frontex said it rejected the allegations.

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