29th Sep 2023

Frontex wins case against Syrian refugee family

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A European court on Wednesday (6 September) dismissed a case brought by a family of Syrian refugees against the EU's border agency Frontex.

The judges also ordered the family, now in Iraq, to pay the agency's legal fees. The agency has previously been found guilty of inflating legal fees against activists.

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When queried on the latest decision, a spokesperson from the agency, whose annual budget tops €850m, said it was too early to discuss payments.

The case follows numerous reports of rights abuses, pushbacks, deaths, and other tragedies of people trying to reach an EU country to seek asylum. Only earlier this year, more than 600 people died in a shipwreck off southern Greece.

The crackdown on arriving asylum seekers, many attempting to cross the Mediterranean, comes at a time when the EU is seeking partnerships with repressive governments in north Africa to stem migration.

But Wednesday's ruling, by the general court of the European Union, an offshoot of the Luxembourg-based higher court of justice, is likely a blow to others seeking damages from Frontex.

It is also one that has led some legal scholars to question how to hold Frontex to account for alleged violations.

On substance, the case follows a complaint filed by the family who arrived on the Greek island of Milos on 9 October 2016.

A few days later, they requested asylum at a reception centre in Greece. Less than a week later, they were dispatched to Turkey, in a joint-operation between Frontex and Greece.

The father, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Washington Post, that they had no idea that they were being sent to Turkey.

They then fled to Iraq and sought some €96,000 in material damages from Frontex, as well as €40,000 for the hardships.

But judges in Luxembourg said the EU agency cannot be held liable for any damage related to relocation to Turkey.

"Frontex does not have the power to assess the merits of return decisions or applications for international protection," it said, in a press statement.

The agency's chief, Hans Leijtens, said the court's ruling has encouraged him to continue the new path that Frontex has taken.

The comment is a reference to the resignation of his predecessor Fabrice Leggeri, following reports that the agency was complicit in illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers from Greece to Turkey.


Several legal scholars have taken issue with the ruling, posing accountability questions for an agency set to have some 10,000 armed guards under its command.

Among them is Steve Peers, a London-based professor of EU law and human rights Law.

He said the judgment appears to ignore the case law on joint liability between member states and EU bodies.

"It's irrelevant that Frontex doesn't formally decide on returns or asylum applications: the issue is whether it breached its obligations not to assist a human rights breach," Peers commented on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Similar comments were made by Melanie Fink, an assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

In a paper published ahead of the ruling, Fink said Frontex is required to take all reasonable measures to ensure fundamental rights are complied with.

"This does not require Frontex to enter into the merits of the original return decision," notes the paper.

On Wednesday, she pressed the point again, noting the court's decision excludes any form of liability for disregarding obligations not to contribute to fundamental rights violations.

The Syrian family have two months to appeal the decision to the European Court of Justice.

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A lawyer for Frontex billed too many hours in a case against transparency activists, the General Court of the European Union ruled. The agency had demanded a €23,700 legal bill from the activists - now reduced by over half.

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