24th Sep 2023

NGOs appear in over 1,000 Frontex smuggling documents

  • Aid workers who rescued people from drowning are facing possible lengthy prison sentences in Greece (Photo: Proactiva Open Arms)
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NGOs (non-governmental organisations) appear in 1,058 documents held by EU border force Frontex as part of its anti-smuggling operation with Europol, the EU's police agency.

The information was collected during Frontex debriefing interviews with detained migrants and asylum seekers.

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Operational data collected during Frontex debriefs is then shared with Europol, in its wider efforts to crack down on smuggling and human trafficking.

Uku Särekanno, Frontex's deputy director, told MEPs last year that the debriefs had led to some 13,000 possible suspects between 2016 and 2022.

He said debriefing reports get a legal check and a stamp of approval from the hosting member state before being shared.

But asylum seekers being interrogated by a Frontex officer may also feel pressured to divulge information, out of fear of having their claims somehow rejected.

Given the sensitivity, it was only earlier this year that the agency's rights monitors were given the explicit permission to verify such debriefs.

The criminalisation of activists helping refugees and asylum seekers throughout much of the EU has led to convictions in Greece, for instance.

But with some now possibly ending up on Europol police database, the issue may raise additional alarms.

A freedom of access request, filed by EUobserver, revealed that Frontex had 1,058 debrief documents where the word "NGO" appears.

But Frontex refused to release any of those documents because they dealt with everything from migrant smuggling routes to "the involvement of facilitators and traffickers in human beings."

When queried, a Frontex spokesperson said the collected information supports criminal investigations in member states.

Asked if this included the named NGOs contained in the debriefing documents, he did not confirm or deny.

Last year, Europol's migrant smuggling centre received 2,500 "data packages" from the Frontex debriefs.

Those data packages included descriptions of people, communications, locations and roughly 290 "organisations."

A Europol spokesperson said the centre did not process any data in 2022 related to NGOs "when managing the information flow from Frontex on migrant debriefings."

But she also said that the ontology of Europol's databases does not include the category 'NGO' or 'Non-Governmental Organisation.

"The closest value in our databases would be 'Non-Commercial Organisation'," she said.

She also said that an "organisation" can only be processed by Europol if the migrant has clearly stated that this entity is commonly used by smugglers to facilitate their criminal activity.

"In that regard, we cannot rule out that Europol could have in the past received information via Frontex in which migrants had clearly link [sic] entities with criminal activities," she said, in an email.

For its part, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) carried out an audit at Frontex last October.

"We did an audit about processing of personal data in the context of debriefing interviews at Frontex," said a EDPS spokesperson, in an email.

He said they had found no reference to NGOs in the sample reports they had checked. But the agency will now reach out to Frontex again he said given they hold over 1,000 documents where NGOs are cited.

"In view of the information provided we will contact Frontex and ask them to clarify," he said.

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Some 24 are facing trial in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, on charges related to Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), a registered NGO that had in the past assisted the Greek Coast Guard in rescue operations.

People helping migrants 'increasingly persecuted in EU'

A new report has found a dramatic increase in the number of criminal and administrative cases against people who help migrants. The report comes as a number of sea-rescue activists face up to 25 years in prison in Greece.

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