BRUSSELS – Mounting evidence indicates that the European Union’s border agency was complicit in Greece’s illegal practice of returning migrants to Turkey, according to documents obtained by The New York Times and interviews with officials.
In at least one case, Frontex, as the European Union border agency is known, was accused of helping to cover up the violations, when a crew member said that agency officials had discouraged them from reporting that they had seen Greek authorities laying down a load of migrants. Adrift in Turkish waters.
Frontex is currently investigating the case. But it has raised suspicions that the agency, which has recently strengthened in its role as a supporter of the rule of law on the borders of the European Union, is not only sporadically aware of such violations, it is playing a role in concealing them.
“We are witnessing a deliberate erosion of the rule of law at the borders of the European Union,” said Gerald Knaus, an immigration expert. “This is extremely worrying because it undermines the Refugee Convention on the continent on which it was created.”
During this year, the New York Times and others reported increased operations by the Greek Coast Guard to expel migrants from Greek waters to Turkey, and reports by Greek authorities deny the existence of violations of international laws.
But the revelation that Frontex has witnessed opposition operations that have thrown the agency into a governance crisis threatening to further harm the liberal values of the European Union, raising questions once again about the bloc’s commitment to upholding its refugee laws.
The issues have also highlighted a puzzle at the heart of the European Union’s ambitions to tighten external borders by pooling resources and engaging the bloc in the sensitive and enthusiastically protected work of the Sovereign Border Guard.
Frontex is the best-funded agency in the European Union, with a budget of more than $ 500 million, and will soon publish the first officers in uniform in the history of the bloc. It was created specifically to aid in migrant rescue operations as the burden of monitoring Europe’s borders falls heavily on the surrounding countries, such as Greece.
It was also intended as a deterrent to the kind of mass arrivals of refugees that sowed political crises across Europe after 2015, and fueled nationalist and populist movements.
However, Frontex is not empowered to prevent national border guards from committing violations, and it is unclear how it could play a role as a flag bearer of EU laws when informed of the national forces that risk the labor relations upon which their operations depend.
The number of refugees arriving in the European Union peaked five years ago and has declined dramatically since then, but thousands of asylum seekers, many of whom fled the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, are still trying to cross. Contrary to the past, the Greeks and their government have turned to hostility towards the newcomers, exhausted by years in which asylum seekers have been crammed into overcrowded camps on the Greek islands.
There is also a growing belief in Greece and many other European governments that aggression at borders and poor conditions in migrant camps will make attempting to reach Europe less attractive to asylum seekers.
Earlier this year, Analysis by The Times It showed that the Greek government had secretly expelled more than 1,000 asylum seekers, often by sailing them to the edge of Greek territorial waters and abandoning them in flimsy inflatable lifeboats in violation of international laws.
The Greek Coast Guard has saved thousands of asylum seekers over the years but it has become more aggressive this year, especially since Turkey used migrants to provoke Greece by To encourage them to cross the border.
The Greek government has denied it is doing anything illegal to repel migrant boats from its national waters, and has described the operations as strong border patrol. But Mr Knaus said, “The denial is not serious,” and the practices are actually taking place in the open – under the eyes of European border patrols.
Documents obtained by The Times, in a Coast Guard colloquial language full of acronyms, symbols, timestamps and coordinates, describe what appears to be a migrant boat pingpong between Greek and Turkish waters, with Frontex crews on ships or aircraft in observer mode.
Four officials with direct knowledge of Frontex’s operations said that agency officials discouraged staff from reporting response incidents, and in some cases, stopped providing initial alerts of violations as “serious incident reports,” sometimes after consulting with Greek authorities.
They all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were concerned about losing their jobs, or were not allowed to report to the press.
Frontex spokesman Chris Borowski said the agency took reporting the violations very seriously. “The pushbacks are illegal under international law,” said Mr. Borowski.
In the most recent detected case, a Swedish coast guard crew deployed under Frontex command witnessed a response to Turkish waters of a boat full of migrants by Greek authorities on October 30 off the Greek island of Chios.
Documents reviewed by The Times showed that a Frontex officer later advised the Swedish crew not to report this. The Swedish representative on the Frontex Board of Directors described the incident, and the suppression of an attempt to report it, at a meeting on 10 November – the first known case of an EU member state that reported an active intervention by Frontex officials.
The Swedish government has not commented. A Frontex spokesman said the agency would not be suspended due to “an ongoing procedure”.
Frontex has been operating in Greece for more than a decade, providing sea, land and air surveillance and rescue capabilities and deploying crews from other member states under its leadership.
The details emerging now are pushing the agency deeper into the governance crisis that began in October when a consortium of news organizations, including The German news magazine Der Spiegel reported On a number of occasions Frontex crews have encountered obstacles in Greece.
The European Commission, which is part of Frontex’s oversight system but does not control the agency, pushed for a special investigation into these allegations, and at an emergency meeting of the agency’s board of directors on November 10, it asked its leadership to respond to detailed questions in writing.
The answers arrived four days late, just 15 hours before another meeting to discuss the problems began on Wednesday. However, another emergency meeting was held in December, adding to the pressure on the agency.
Frontex has promised internal investigations, but also quickly dismissed the allegations, saying, for example, in a letter seen by The Times, that it will look into the Swedish case, but has not yet found any evidence of its occurrence.
How these investigations will shake up will greatly affect the future of Frontex, which was once more than just a back office operation in Warsaw but now finds itself on the front lines of a troublesome immigration issue that has the power to make or break governments.
Aside from assisting member states in the arrival of asylum seekers, Frontex’s role as an EU agency under the law is to respect basic rights, and to bring human rights standards across EU national border agencies, which often do not have a strong culture to support them. .
But claims that Frontex is not taking basic rights seriously enough are growing. This year, only € 1 million out of its € 460 million budget – roughly $ 548 million – has been earmarked for rights monitoring.
The agency was supposed to employ 40 basic rights officers by Dec.5, but the jobs have yet to be announced. The agency is currently in the process of recruiting their president, after years of hiring issues around the position. A Frontex spokesman said the delay stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic.
The documents reviewed by the Times explained how the Greek authorities were consulted in one of the episodes prior to the submission of the report and were able to suppress it. On August 10, a German crew published by Frontex reported that a Greek Coast Guard vessel “has taken border control measures to prevent landing at Samos”.
The expression refers to maneuvering and making waves around a boat to repel it. The event was not recorded as a “serious accident”, because, as stated in the document, the Greek Coast Guard had argued that the activities “did not provide any basis” for initiating such a report.
Another incident, monitored by a Frontex air crew and reported to its headquarters in detail, occurred on the evening of April 18-19, off the coast of Lesbos, and lasted more than five hours.
A boat was discovered by the Greek authorities and approximately 20 migrants were rescued and placed on a Greek Coast Guard vessel shortly after midnight, and the coast guard towed their empty boat towards the island.
But instead of taking them ashore, at 2:45 am, the Greek coast guard returned the migrants to Turkish waters, Frontex air crew reported.
As events unfolded, the Greek command center twice requested Frontex to change its flight path, and steer it away from the accident.
At 03:21, the Frontex Surveillance Aircraft reported that the rubber dinghy had no engine and was moving adrift. The document said that Greek origins are leaving the region, leaving the inflatable boat in limbo.
The document shows that Frontex’s internal report detailing this incident and classifying it as a violation of fundamental rights has been “rejected.”