The head of the European Union’s border patrol force, Fabrice Leggeri, has the support of the bloc’s top migration official although European Parliament lawmakers wanted him to quit, citing claims by human rights groups the agency helped hide Greece pushing back refugees and migrants.
That hasn’t been proved yet despite a spate of media reports claiming that Greek authorities, with the complicity of FRONTEX, pushed refugees and migrants back out to sea toward Turkey and across land borders.
Asked whether she still has confidence Leggeri, European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said simply "yes," without elaborating after she earlier said the allegations were "not acceptable, and they have to be investigated and clarified."
Turkey has allowed human traffickers to keep sending them during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal, even during the COVID-19 pandemic and hasn’t faced any punitive action for doing so.
Turkey is holding some 4.4 million people who went there fleeing war and strife in their homelands, especially Syria and Afghanistan, as well as economic hardship in sub-Saharan Africa and other countries.
Five Greek islands near Turkey’s coast, led by Lesbos, have been the prime destination and some 34,000 are being held in detention centers and camps along with about another 66,000 in mainland facilities.
EU lawmakers want an independent report into the constant allegations of pushbacks that keep arising even as Greece’s New Democracy denied that the Coast Guard or other officials had done that.
FRONTEX has come under the spotlight over a media investigation which alleges that video and other publicly available data suggest the agency's "assets were actively involved in one pushback incident at the Greek-Turkish maritime border in the Aegean Sea."
The report said personnel from the agency, which monitors and polices migrant movements around Europe's borders, were present at another incident and "have been in the vicinity of four more since March."
Leggeri in October said there wasn't any proof but the row has intensified, including that FRONTEX, which helps patrol the borders including in the Aegean, helped to unlawfully stop migrants or refugees from entering Europe – which had closed its borders to them.
Leggeri was grilled over an investigation in October by media outlets Bellingcat, Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, ARD and TV Asahi, which said FRONTEX personnel were present at another incident and “have been in the vicinity of four more since March.” FRONTEX launched an internal probe after the news broke.
“In his handling of these allegations, Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri has completely lost our trust and it is time for him to resign,” senior Socialist lawmaker Kati Piri said after the parliamentary civil liberties committee hearing. “There are still far too many unanswered questions on the involvement of Frontex in illegal practices,” she said.
Pushbacks are considered contrary to international refugee protection agreements, which say people shouldn't be expelled or returned to a country where their life and safety might be in danger due to their race, religion, nationality or being members of a social or political group.
Pushbacks — the act of forcibly stopping people seeking asylum from entering a country — are considered contrary to international refugee protection agreements, which say people shouldn't be expelled or returned to a country where their life and safety might be in danger due to their race, religion, nationality or being members of a social or political group.
The allegations are extremely embarrassing for the European Commission. In September it unveiled sweeping new reforms to the EU's asylum system, which proved dismally inadequate when over 1 million migrants arrived in 2015, many of them Syrian refugees reaching the Greek islands via Turkey.
Included in the reforms is a system of independent monitoring by rights experts to ensure that there are no pushbacks at Europe's borders going on.
"The European Union will remain, always, an asylum destination," said commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas – a member of New Democracy – who helped draft the reforms. "Everyone who wishes to file an asylum claim has to have the right to do it."
The 2015 migrant surge had sparked one of Europe's deepest crises as countries bickered over how best to manage the arrivals. Entries dropped to a relative trickle in recent years, although many migrants still languish on Greek islands waiting for their asylum claims to be processed, or to be sent back.
Leggeri said EU member countries have control over operations in their waters, not FRONTEX, and he called for the rules governing surveillance of Europe's external borders to be clarified
“We have not found evidence that there were active, direct or indirect participation of FRONTEX staff or officers deployed by FRONTEX in pushbacks," he told the lawmakers. When it comes to operations, Leggeri said, “only the host member state authorities can decide what has to be done.”
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)