29th Sep 2023

Frontex silent on report to withdraw from Greece

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The EU's border agency Frontex will not say if discussions are taking place for it to pull out of Greece.

But a report on Monday (26 June) by French newspaper Le Monde said the agency's fundamental rights officer, Jonas Grimheden, has again proposed the option.

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Pressed on the veracity of Le Monde article, Grimheden, in an email also on Monday, said he could not comment on specifics about possible ongoing cases "in order to ensure leverage when that is needed."

The comment comes in the wake of the 14 June sinking of a large boat off the Greek coast that may have drowned more than 500 people.

The Greek Coast Guard has come under intense scrutiny, amid accusations that it provoked the sinking by attaching a rope to the vessel, a charge it vehemently denies.

The fallout has seen some 104 survivors sent to the ultra-secure Malakasa camp north of Athens, as testimonies of Greek complicity continue to surface.

Le Monde reported that Grimheden had since recommended the agency withdraw its operations in Greece.

Citing an unnamed source, it said the issue had been discussed during a Frontex management board meeting held on 20 and 21 June.

It said Grimheden advised triggering article 46 of the agency's rulebook, a politically-charged decision that has only once ever been used.

Article 46 gives the agency's executive director, Hans Leijtens, the power to suspend operations in Greece if violations of fundamental rights are likely to persist.

The agency's spokesperson also declined to comment on the article, noting that discussions held at management board meetings are confidential.

Grimheden oversees dozens of monitors tasked to ensure fundamental rights are being respected in Frontex-led operations. Those monitors can only board and join Greek Coast Guard vessels if they are part of a Frontex operation.

"We have this possibility as of fairly recently and are starting to make use of it," he said.

It is the second reported time Grimheden had demanded the agency trigger article 46 for Greece.

In February, The New York Times said Grimheden had recommended Frontex withdraw from Greece due to serial abuses by Greek border guards and for separating migrant children from their parents.

That recommendation led to a Frontex working group, chaired by the agency's deputy director, on the possibility of triggering article 46.

But its slow formation has also come under criticism by the agency's consultative forum, composed primarily of international aid organisations.

The New York Times in mid-May posted video evidence of the Greek Coast Guard setting a family of asylum seekers, including a six-month old baby, adrift at sea.

Meanwhile, internal moves at the European Commission appear to be considering tweaking and possibly weakening article 46.

Corinna Ullrich, a commission official from the internal affairs division DG Home, said article 46 "is not fit for purpose as it stands."

"We also think it's a bit naive to think that this is a decision that can be taken by the executive director on his own," she told MEPs in April.

Earlier this year, the agency said it had some 518 standing corps officers and staff working in Greece, both at the mainland and on the islands in the Aegean.

It also deployed 11 boats and 30 patrol cars, as well as other equipment, at Greece's external borders, it said.

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