28th Feb 2024

MEPs: 'Scale down Frontex operations in some EU states'

  • The inquiry, opened by the European Ombudsman in early November, examines the EU Commission's complicity in the illegal practices at Greece's border (Photo: Aegean Boat Report)
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The European Parliament on Thursday (14 December) adopted a resolution calling on the EU border agency Frontex to comply with fundamental rights in border operations, and raising concerns over the situation in Greece, Lithuania and Hungary.

The resolution adds to the mounting pressure on EU institutions, following an inquiry into the commission's complicity in funding illegal border operations in Greece by the EU Ombudsman.

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The text was overwhelmingly approved by the parliament, with 366 votes in favour, 154 against, and 15 abstentions.

MEPs have expressed "severe concerns" regarding the persistent reports of pushbacks and violence towards asylum seekers and migrants arriving in Greece.

They also called for greater transparency in Frontex's work and a change in adherence to accountability.

"Frontex should scale down its operations to mere monitoring and presence on the ground only where a member state is unable to respect EU principles and values," they said in a statement. MEPs point out this has not been the case in Greece so far.

The resolution, which wrapped up the fact-finding investigation carried out by MEPs, showcases the increasing scrutiny the EU commission is under.

The inquiry recently opened into the European Commission's management of the funds provided to Greece's border operations is a further instance of the mounting pressure on EU institutions.

Between 2015 and 2020, Greece benefited from €3.39bn in EU funding for border management — with over €450m coming from the Internal Defence Fund.

During the current funding cycle, 2021 to 2027, a further €1.57bn has been allocated to manage migration in Greece.

However, pushbacks and border violence — committed by Greek authorities — have been well-documented, amounting to systematic breaches of EU and international law.

The inquiry, opened by the European Ombudsman in early November, examines the EU Commission's complicity in the illegal practices at Greece's border.

It comes after NGOs raised the alarm over "serious human rights abuses" against asylum seekers and migrants at the EU's external border.

NGOs stated the commission has been aware of Greece's illegal border operations for years yet has failed to take "appropriate and effective" measures.

According to the complaint by NGOs, EU funding has been used to pursue a de facto policy of pushback and fundamental rights violations against asylum seekers.

European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly has limited the scope of the inquiry to the current commission's time in office. Events occurring before 2020 will not be considered. O'Reilly is also extending the inquiry to include the commission's management of Frontex.

The commission now has until February to answer an initial set of questions. In the event the inquiry finds maladministration, a report will be submitted to which the commission has three months to respond. Outcomes are then presented by the ombudsman before the European Parliament — providing further weight to the resolution.

Pushbacks under EU and international law

Although no legal definition of 'pushbacks' exists, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) bans collective expulsion — which refers to the removal of groups of arrivals without legally processing each individual case. A total of 47 states, including Greece, have signed the ECHR.

Within international law, the principle of non-refoulement is enshrined under the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees. Non-refoulement means individuals should not be forcibly returned to a state where they face serious threats to life or freedom.

The inquiry into the commission comes in the context of widespread acknowledgement of the criminal practices of Greece's border operations. A proliferation of reports have documented illegal operations, with UNHCR recording almost 540 informal returns from Greece to Turkey over 14 months starting from 2020.

"We are alarmed by the recurrent and consistent reports coming from Greece's land and sea borders with Turkey," said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

While denying accusations of pushbacks, the Greek government has openly stated it "averted" more than 150,000 irregular arrivals to the country in 2022.

More recently, NGO Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) reported a total of 183 pushbacks from 50 testimonies collected on the Greek island Samos.

MSF also documented patterned instances of abduction, strip searches and physical assault on migrants by Greece's authorities.

External border operations: scrutinised or emboldened?

In May, a video of a pushback operation on Lesvos, published by The New York Times, resulted in the EU calling for an independent investigation into the Greek Coast Guard. The video showed masked individuals forcibly removing asylum seekers and pushing them adrift into the Aegean Sea.

The investigation, however, is ongoing and has been left in the hands of Greece's National Transparency Authority — a body described as politically compromised and ineffective.

Previously, the commission had also initiated infringement proceedings against reception conditions in Greece — following a complaint submitted by Oxfam and WeMove Europe.

The proceedings were predicated on a failure by Greek authorities to meet the reception standards for new arrivals set out in the Common European Asylum System.

Yet, at the same time, the EU has invested over €275m in five new migrant holding camps on Greek islands, known as Close Controlled Access Centres. Conditions inside the camps have been described as "prison-like" and "intolerable".

Meanwhile, negotiations in Brussels are focusing on the EU's new pact on asylum and migration — which NGOs and experts have warned will lead to unjust detentions and erosion of fundamental rights, undermining the right to asylum.

Author bio

Danny Callaghan is a freelance journalist from Bristol, based in Berlin. He covers migration, climate and public health policy.

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