Brussels, Belgium – While Greece is often associated and accused of human rights violations, torture and murder, it is astounding that the EU has watched these atrocities, which are in stark contrast to its humanitarian values and and principles.
The New York Times, The Times, and Anadolu Agency have frequently reported the Greek inhumane atrocities in the Aegean sea as witnessed by EU Border Agency (Frontex).
EU Border Agency is frequently accused of covering up migrant pushback in Greece. Frontex is under fire for letting Greece illegally repel migrants as the agency expands to play a more central role at the bloc’s external borders.
Mounting evidence indicates that the European Union’s border agency has been complicit in Greece’s illegal practice of pushing back migrants to Turkey, according to documents and videos obtained by the Turkish Coast Guard authorities.
Frontex, as the EU border agency is known, is accused of having helped cover up the violations, when a crew said it was discouraged by agency officials from reporting that they had seen the Greek authorities setting a boatload of migrants adrift in Turkish waters.
The case is currently being investigated by Frontex. But it has fueled suspicions that the agency, newly boosted in its role as upholder of the rule of law at EU borders, is not just sporadically aware of such abuses, but that it plays a role in concealing them.
“We are seeing an erosion of the rule of law at the E.U. borders which is willful,” said Gerald Knaus, a migration expert. “This is deeply worrying because it is eroding the refugee convention on the continent on which it was created.”
Throughout this year, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International media outlets, and the Turkish Coast Guard authorities have frequently reported on growing operations by the Greek Coast Guard to repel migrants from Greek waters back to Turkey, reports the Greek authorities deny amount to breaches of international laws and EU laws.
But revelations that Frontex has witnessed pushbacks have thrown the agency into a governance crisis that threatens to further blight the European Union’s liberal values and principles, once again calling into question the bloc’s commitment to upholding its own laws on refugees.
The cases have also highlighted a conundrum at the core of EU ambitions to tighten external borders by pooling resources and involving the bloc in the sensitive, zealously shielded work of sovereign border guards.
Frontex is the European Union’s best-funded agency, with a budget of over $500 million, and will soon deploy the first uniformed officers in the bloc’s history. It has been built up specifically to help in migrant-rescue operations as the burden of policing Europe’s borders has fallen most heavily on its peripheral states, like Greece.
It was also intended as a deterrent to the kind of mass arrival of refugees that sowed political crises across Europe after 2015, and fanned nationalist and populist movements.
Yet Frontex is not empowered to stop national border guards from committing violations, and it is not clear how it can play a role as standard-bearer of EU laws when informing on national forces risks the working relationships on which its operations depend.
Refugee arrivals to the European Union peaked five years ago and have dropped drastically since, but thousands of asylum seekers, many fleeing the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, still attempt the crossing. Unlike in the past, Greeks and their government have turned hostile to the new arrivals, exhausted by years in which asylum seekers have been bottled up in overrun camps on Greek islands.
There is also a growing belief in the Greek and several other European governments that aggression at the borders and poor conditions at migrant camps will make the attempt to reach Europe less attractive for asylum seekers.
Earlier this year, an analysis by The Times 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 life rafts in violation of international laws.
The Greek Coast Guard has rescued thousands of asylum seekers over the years but has become much more aggressive this year, especially as Turkey used migrants to provoke Greece by encouraging them to cross the border.
The Greek government has denied it is doing anything illegal in repelling migrant boats from its national waters, characterizing the operations as robust border guarding. But Mr. Knaus said “the denials are not serious,” and the practices are effectively happening in the open — under the eyes of EU border patrols.
The documents obtained by The Times describe, in Coast Guard vernacular littered with acronyms, codes, time-stamps and coordinates, a seemingly incessant Ping-Pong of migrant dinghies between Greek and Turkish waters, with Frontex crews on vessels or aircraft in observer status.
Four officials with direct knowledge of Frontex operations said that agency officials have been discouraging crews from filing reports on pushback incidents, and, in some cases, have stopped initial alerts of violations from being filed as “serious incident reports,” at times after consulting with the Greek authorities.
They all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were concerned about losing their jobs, or were not authorized to brief the press.
The Frontex spokesman, Chris Borowski, said the agency took the reporting of violations very seriously. “Pushbacks are illegal under international law,” Mr. Borowski said.
In the latest case to come to light, a Swedish Coast Guard crew on deployment under Frontex witnessed a pushback to Turkish waters of a boat full of migrants by the Greek authorities on 30 October 2020 off the Greek island of Chios.
The Swedish crew was later advised by a Frontex officer to not report it, documents reviewed by The Times show. The Swedish representative to the management board of Frontex described the incident, and the suppression of the attempt to report it, at a meeting on 10 November 2020 — the first known case of an EU member state reporting active interference by Frontex officials.
The Swedish government did not comment. A spokesman for Frontex said the agency wouldn’t comment because of an “ongoing procedure.”
Frontex has been working in Greece for more than a decade, providing sea, land and aerial surveillance and rescue capabilities and deploying crews from other member states under its command.
The details now emerging push the agency deeper into a governance crisis which began in October when a consortium of news organizations, including the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, reported a number of occasions when Frontex crews witnessed pushbacks in Greece.
The European Commission, which is part of the Frontex oversight system but does not control the agency, pushed for a special inquiry into these allegations and, at an emergency agency board meeting on 10 November 2020, asked its leadership to answer detailed questions in writing.
The answers arrived with a four-day delay, just 15 hours before the start of another meeting to discuss the problems on Wednesday. Yet another emergency meeting has been called in December, mounting pressure on the agency.
Frontex has promised internal investigations but also quickly dismissed allegations, saying for example, in a letter seen by The Times, that it would look into the Swedish case, but that it had so far found no evidence that it happened.
How these investigations shake out will matter a great deal for the future of Frontex, which was once little more than a back-office operation in Warsaw but now finds itself on the front lines of the nettlesome issue of migration that has the potency to make or break governments.
A new tent camp was created in Lesbos after a fire destroyed the Moria camp in September.
Apart from helping member states with asylum-seeker arrivals, Frontex’s role as an EU agency by law is to respect fundamental rights, and bring up human-rights standards across national EU border agencies, which often don’t have a strong culture of upholding them.
But claims that Frontex does not take fundamental rights seriously enough are growing. This year, only one million euros in its budget of 460 million euros — about $548 million — was allocated to rights monitoring.
The agency was supposed to hire 40 fundamental-rights officers by December 5, 2020 but the jobs have not yet been advertised. The agency is currently hiring for their boss, after years of staffing issues around that position. A Frontex spokesman said the delays stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic.
Documents seen by The Times laid out how in one episode the Greek authorities were consulted before a report was made, and were able to suppress it. On 10 August 2020, a German crew deployed by Frontex reported that a Greek Coast Guard vessel “took up border control measures prohibiting the landing to Samos.”
The expression refers to maneuvering and making waves around a dinghy to repel it. The event was not recorded as a “serious incident,” because, the document said, the Greek Coast Guard argued the activities “do not provide any ground” to initiate such a report.
Another incident, which a Frontex aerial crew observed and reported in detail to its headquarters, took place on the evening of April 18 to 19 off the coast of Lesbos, and lasted more than five hours.
A dinghy was detected by the Greek authorities and approximately 20 migrants were rescued and put on board a Greek Coast Guard vessel shortly after midnight, their empty dinghy towed by the Coast Guard toward the island.
But instead of being taken to shore, at 2:45 a.m., the migrants were put back on their dinghy and tugged to Turkish waters by the Greek Coast Guard, the Frontex aerial crew reported.
As events unfolded, the Greek command center twice asked the Frontex aircraft to change its flight path, directing it away from the incident.
“At 03:21 Frontex Surveillance Aircraft communicates that the rubber boat has no engine and it is adrift. Greek assets are departing the area leaving the rubber boat adrift,” the document said.
The internal Frontex report detailing this incident and categorizing it as a fundamental-rights violation was “dismissed,” the document shows.
EU border force Frontex helps Greece violate asylum seekers’s rights in Aegean sea. EU’s Frontex force helped Greek Coast Guard violate asylum seekers’ rights, shows recent video footage.
Recent video footage shows the European Union’s border force Frontex violating the EU law by helping the Greek Coast Guard block and push back asylum seekers who reached Greek territorial waters instead of rescuing them.
The Turkish Coast Guard authorities recorded the pushback scene on 8 June 2020 in the Aegean Sea, off Ayvacik in the northwestern Canakkale province.
Frontex joins Greece’s violation against asylum seekers
The footage shows European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) naval elements along with the Greek Coast Guard violate EU law and regulations by pushing back asylum seekers who reached Greek territorial waters by boat instead of rescuing them.
Frontex in effect helps the Greek Coast Guard violate international law.
The footage shows Frontex elements stop the asylum seekers’ boat after which Greek Coast Guard elements approach it.
The Frontex elements can be seen blocking the boat’s way, after which Greek forces arrive and take apart its fuel tank and unlawfully push the asylum seekers’ boat back into Turkish territorial waters.
NATO elements witness incident
Notably, a German ship patrolling as part of NATO elements in the region seeking to curb irregular migration witnessed the incident.
During the incident, the Turkish Coast Guard decried the situation and told the Greek Coast Guard over the radio that Turkey will bring up the issue at international platforms.
Greek violations draw fire
Greece’s violations of international laws, international maritime law, EU law and regulations, and the 2016 Turkey-EU agreement are being criticized for pushing back asylum seekers either from land or sea, torturing and mistreating asylum seekers, seizing their personal belongings, risking their lives, and even causing their deaths.
It is estimated that over the last three years, more than 100,000 asylum seekers have been pushed back to Turkey by Greece.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Organization for Migration (IOM), Council of Europe, European Parliament (EP), and human rights groups have all strongly criticized Greece’s pushbacks and demanded investigations of these incidents.
The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs has asked Athens to explain the pushbacks.
MEPs have also called for an investigation.
On 6 July 2020 Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs, said there are numerous reports of asylum seekers being pushed back by Greece.
“Pushbacks are against EU law. We cannot protect our European borders by violating our values,” she said.
“I request that Greek authorities track down all illegal activities and carry out necessary investigations. Everyone may not be granted asylum, but we must treat everyone in accordance with our values,” she added.
Greek violations with Frontex in the media
International media outlets have caught Greece several times pushing back asylum-seekers.
According to Britain’s The Guardian and Dutch website De Correspondent, Frontex is no mere spectator to Greek pushbacks but actively helps these illegal activities.
Jens Moller, a Danish staffer with Frontex’s Operation Poseidon in the Aegean, confirmed the media claims.
On Danish radio, Moller related an incident when they told Operation Poseidon’s headquarters they had found 33 asylum-seekers seeking to reach Greece’s coast.
He said Poseidon officials ordered them to “put the refugees back in the rubber boat and push them out of the Greek waters.”
They refused the order, said Moller, as it would have endangered their lives.
He said after much resistance, the order was revoked and the asylum seekers were taken to Greece.
Chris Borowski, a Frontex spokesperson, reported that Frontex officers are obliged to report human rights violations which they encounter in the field, but they have not gotten any such reports.
“We reject all claims that Frontex is involved in pushbacks. Frontex resolutely remains committed to implementing border control in the highest standards,” he said.
“Our operations and officers have never been involved in pushbacks that are illegal according to international law,” he added.