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21st Jun 2021

Best to keep Frontex in Greece, new rights officer suggests

  • Frontex's biggest operation remains in Greece (Photo: Frontex)

A new officer overseeing rights at the EU's border agency Frontex has suggested it remains in Greece, despite allegations of pushbacks.

"I think the enjoyment of fundamental rights are not necessarily best served by pulling out on behalf of Frontex but by constructively engaging," Jonas Grimheden told MEPs on Thursday (3 June).

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Grimheden is Frontex's new fundamental rights officer, a post he started on 1 June after spending 12 years at the Vienna-based Fundamental Rights Agency.

Although he can conduct investigations, his role is broadly limited to giving Frontex advice and monitoring rights compliance by the agency.

Grimheden did not specifically name Greece, but was speaking about Frontex rules that say the agency can suspend or terminate operations in a country violating rights.

The Warsaw-based agency's biggest operation is in Greece, where it has deployed several hundred guards.

It pulled out of Hungary earlier this year, but only after Budapest ignored a European Court of Justice ruling demanding it stop pushing people back into Serbia.

Frontex still helps Hungary deport people back to their home countries, despite the judgement.

Grimheden's comments provided an insight into his thinking and approach to an agency steeped in numerous controversies, ranging from internal staffing disputes to persistent allegations of violations.

But he refrained from speaking about allegations of pushbacks in Greece and elsewhere, some reportedly assisted by Frontex.

"It's difficult for me to talk about the past having two days in the office, so I want to focus on what can be strengthened," said Grimheden.

Those allegations have been backed by investigative media reports and NGOs, but disputed by an internal probe carried out by the Frontex Management Board.

A group of lawyers from Front-Lex, an NGO, have since filed a European Court of Justice lawsuit against the agency over rights violations in the Aegean Sea.

Grimheden instead laid out three priorities for his new role.

The first involves getting proper staff. Some 40 fundamental rights monitors will be under his watch. But only 20 have been hired.

Grimheden suggested it could take months before the rest were in place, owing the delays to the importance of finding qualified recruits.

"We will need some time to reach the full number," he said.

"I would need a few months and maybe more to see how we can manage with the resources that we have," he added.

He said procedural reforms were also underway on how to report right violations, also known as serious incident reports. Rules are also being updated on allowing migrants to file complaints.

It is not immediately clear how the new monitors will contribute.

"We will have to test and see what works," he said, noting they should be agile and flexible.

His second priority deals with complaints and serious incident reports.

Grimheden is hoping for a culture change within the agency, so that it acknowledges and learns from past mistakes.

His final priority is to boost rights so that Frontex can keep operating in a given country.

"We need to have a clear transparent set of steps based on a due diligence assessment," he said.

As for his independence, Grimheden appeared convinced by his internal chats with Frontex's executive director, Fabrice Leggeri and other senior staff.

"I have only sensed that there is full independence for me, they expressed themselves very carefully and they underscored that it is my decision at the end," he said.

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