The European Union’s Frontex border patrol should have stopped operations in Greece in 2022 because of refugees being violently being pushed back, the the agency’s human rights chief said, although Greece denied the practice.
The alleged abuses included separating children from their parents, according to confidential documents reviewed by The New York Times, with the New Democracy government trying to keep out asylum seekers.
Frontex deploys border guards from around Europe to help Greek authorities with border operations, and provides equipment such as helicopters, boats and drones paid for by European taxpayers, the report noted.
But instead of taking legal action against Greece or investigating the findings, the EU set up an obscure “working group,” and that the pushbacks were still going on, the paper reported the rights chief Jonas Grimheden said.
In October, 2022 a much-anticipated report by the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog found that Frontex employees were involved in covering up the illegal pushbacks of migrants from Greece to Turkey in violation of their “fundamental rights.”
Top managers at Frontex committed “serious misconduct and other irregularities” in covering up pushback incidents, not investigating them or handling them correctly, the report found, but names were redacted.
“In doing so, they hindered the capacity of Frontex to fully comply with its responsibilities, namely ensuring for the protection and promotion of fundamental rights,” the report read.
Turkey has allowed human traffickers to keep sending refugees and migrants to five Greek islands near Turkey’s coast, violating an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU but hasn’t been sanctioned.
The newspaper indicated that the EU has waffled over what to do even as Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ government denied pushbacks and as he called for a uniform policy to deal with refugees, who are allowed to seek asylum only in the first country in which they arrive, mostly Greece.
The number of arrivals in Greece has slowed, largely because of the now waning COVID-19 pandemic but in 2022 a record nearly 5 million people headed for the EU, some 4 million Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion.
While the Ukrainians were greeted with open arms and benefits offered them – including jobs – others were kept out, most from Syria and Afghanistan but also sub-Saharan Africa and as far as Pakistan and Bangladesh.
They try to get into Greece on rickety craft and rubber dinghies supplied by human traffickers who charge thousands of euros for a short trip across the Aegean to Greek islands in seas so perilous that hundreds have drowned.
“Among member states, there is currently no other consensus than on border control,” said Camino Mortera-Martínez, a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for European Reform.
KEEPING THEM OUT
“The debate on common asylum policy is going nowhere, so countries on external borders are left to their own devices,” she told the paper although the European Commission’s last two chiefs overseeing refugee matters came from Greece’s now ruling government.
The EU needs Greece to seal its borders in the region and has appealed for more help, Mitsotakis indicating that his government is in the front lines of trying to keep out unwanted refugees and migrants.
“The EU as an organization, and Greece as a frontline state, have a legal obligation to protect the external borders of the Schengen area,” said Mortera-Martínez, referring to Europe’s internal borderless region. “Because once someone comes in, they can freely move around.”
The agency’s former chief, Fabrice Leggeri, quit under fire after accusations of harassment, mismanagement and rights abuses. New leadership vowed changes, including strengthening the role of the rights chief.
Grimheden issues confidential quarterly reports on conditions and abuses at EU borders, including countries such as Poland and Italy, the paper reporting the details of the last two quarters it saw was especially tough on Greece.
He said there were continued “credible reports” of Greece systematically expelling migrants at both sea and land borders, denying them access to protection, separating children from their parents and treating migrants in a “degrading” way.
That led him to recommend suspending the operation, after he issued three escalating “opinions,” documenting his findings in detail, over the course of 2022, the documents said, but the agency is still working in Greece.
“By staying in an operation where there are rights violations, Frontex is in breach of the rule of law,” Luisa Marin, a legal fellow at the Florence-based European University Institute, who has been researching Frontex told the paper.
In response, Frontex said his recommendations were non-binding and that it was working with Greek authorities and that progress was being made but it wasn’t specified what that allegedly was.
“We don’t see a reason to pull out from one of the most challenging border areas of the whole EU,” a Frontex statement said, according to the paper.
The Greek government said it respected European and international law and that the allegations were being investigated after saying there weren’t any abuses to be probed, setting aside any criticism.
“Protecting Europe from irregular arrivals is a priority for the European Council,” the Greek government said, referring to an EU leaders meeting in Brussels indicating Greece’s role in protecting the borders.
Greece is also extending an anti-refugee border wall along the Evros River border with Turkey to keep them out, which includes barbed wire and electronic surveillance and patrols.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters after the meeting – without directly commenting on the report – that, “We agreed on operational and concrete steps forward. We will act to strengthen our external borders and prevent irregular migration.”