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2nd Mar 2024

Frontex keeps return operations in Hungary secret

  • Frontex's fundamental rights officer says the agency should partially suspend return operations from Hungary (Photo: Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI))
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The EU's border police Frontex will not reveal how it complies with human rights obligations when it deports people from Hungary, despite already being told to stop such operations.

The operation includes returns, whereby rejected asylum seekers are sent back to their home countries, in what critics say are based on opaque Hungarian decisions.

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The agency's fundamental rights officer, Jonas Grimheden, said Frontex should "partially suspend the support to return operations from Hungary, specifically with regards to asylum seekers."

His comment is part of a larger 44-page annual report published earlier this week, which also noted serious fundamental rights issues in Bulgaria, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

It also comes after Frontex had suspended other operations in Hungary following a 2020 European Court of Justice ruling that faulted Budapest over push backs into Serbia.

Hungary has since ignored the ruling, posing questions on why Frontex continued to cooperate with Budapest on returns.

Grimheden last year drafted a separate opinion on Frontex return operations in Hungary.

But that report is confidential and the agency has since refused to release it, despite a freedom of access request.

Frontex says the document "contains sensitive information" and that its disclosure would be used by criminal networks to exploit possible loopholes.

It further claims it would "put the life of migrants in danger" and erode the mutual trust between Frontex and other states.

It also refused even partial access, in a sign of the sensitivity of the topic.

In a post-publication email on 28 June, it said it had never kept secret its support on returns for Hungary.

It noted, among other things, that the agency has never been involved in returns from the 'transit zone' — areas where asylum-seekers are held pending the outcome of their asylum claims.

"Further, Frontex will not assist in return operations in cases relating to laws pertaining to the 'transit zone'," it stated.

The agency said it had discussed the issue of returns with Hungarian authorities in early June to make sure that Frontex assistance in returns from Hungary is requested only for cases for which the national procedures are fully compliant with the relevant EU legal framework on return and asylum.

"We would also like to point out that in the years 2020-2022, Hungary participated in only 13 returns by charter flights. 12 of those flights had at least one forced return monitor onboard. The remaining flight had a Frontex representative and Forced Return Escort and Support Officers onboard," it said.

Transparency

But the agency's refusal to disclose the report by its fundamental rights officer appears to clash with earlier statements by Frontex's acting executive-director, Aija Kalnaja.

"We need transparency. Also the agency needs transparency. Mismanagement within the agency simply cannot happen," she had told European lawmakers in May.

But the agency has a long history of refusing to release documents and often in ways that appear to obstruct wider public scrutiny.

One of those tactics includes forcing applicants for public access to documents to go through its documents portal instead of simple email exchanges.

The system was introduced in January 2020 has caused headaches for users and pro-transparency portals created by European civil society groups.

The online portal means the documents cannot be automatically moved over to online transparency portals like AsktheEU.org, where the public can view them with ease.

Germany-based Fragdenstaat has since filed a complaint with the European Ombudsman, an administrative watchdog under the leadership of Emily O'Reilly.

O'Reilly earlier this week issued a response, noting that the agency's online access portal causes a number of unnecessary problems for individual applicants as well as for transparency platforms.

"The Ombudsman could not find justifications for Frontex's decision," she said, suggesting that Frontex communicate through email instead.

She had also previously criticised the agency for slapping a "copyright" on the released documents, which it has since ended.

This article was updated on 28 June, 2022 to reflect post-publication statements by Frontex

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