Investigation: Frontex involved in illegal return of asylum seekers at sea

The European Union Border Surveillance Organisation, Frontex, helps the Greek Coast Guard to stop asylum seekers at sea. This concludes a team of investigative journalists from Lighthouse Reports, Bellingcat, ARD and Der Spiegel.

They analyzed images showing, for example, that a FRONTEX boat deliberately makes waves, so that a migrant boat is driven back to Turkish waters. In doing so, Frontex is working towards a practice that is contrary to international law and European treaties.

Images from the Turkish Coast Guard, whose authenticity has been established by the investigation team, show a Romanian Frontex vessel patrolling north-east of Lesbos on 8 June. They sail by an inflatable boat in which 47 asylum seekers are sitting, and which tries to sail from Turkey to Lesbos.

Illegal practices

It can be seen that the Frontex ship first stops the boat, then sails away and then shaves along the rubber boat at high speed, causing waves and putting the rubber boat into a dangerous situation. When the Frontex ship is gone, the Greek Coast Guard pushes the boat back to Turkish waters, where they are picked up by the Turkish Coast Guard.

At other times, it was recorded that Frontex ships were close at the time when the Greek Coast Guard pushed back boats. Frontex did not intervene and did not report the incidents to the headquarters in Warsaw.

The European agency that monitors the external borders of the European Union is thus involved in illegal practices, the journalists conclude. It is not possible to send back or push back boats with migrants and refugees, even according to Frontexs own rules.

It has been agreed internationally that once migrants arrive in Greek waters, they should be given the opportunity to apply for asylum. The Greek Coast Guard and Frontex are also obliged to save people who are at risk at sea. In addition, they must respect the principle of non-refoulement: an asylum seeker must not be returned to a country where he or she is at risk.

Dumped at sea

The journalists also found evidence that a FRONTEX aircraft witnessed an action by the Greek Coast Guard, in which migrants were dumped on an inflatable raft at sea. These migrants were arrested in Samos on 28 April and brought by the Coast Guard to the open sea, where they were left behind.

At that time, the plane of Frontex flew two times low. Researchers argue that the occupants of that little plane, with modern camera technology on board, must have seen this.

Also at national borders

Frontex does not respond directly to the allegations in a written response. The Agency says that all the incidents described have been reported to the Greek Coast Guard, which they believe is primarily responsible for operations at sea. โ€œGreek authorities are in the process of an internal investigation and Frontex is not in a position to respond.โ€

The so-called pushbacks of migrants have been discussed for years, including at national borders. The number of reports on this in the Aegean Sea increased considerably this year. The Greek authorities deny that they are doing so, but they report that few boats are still arriving on the Greek islands.

In addition, in recent months migrants have been removed from the islands and dumped at sea on inflatable rafts.

Human rights organisations have long been calling on the European Union to take more stringent action against Greece. These new allegations against the border guard organisation are very serious, says Eva Cosse of Human Rights Watch in Athens. โ€œThe EU must immediately call Frontex to account if it does not comply with the rules, in Greece and elsewhereโ€.

Pvda MEP Kati Piri calls it shocking that Frontex is involved in these inhumane and illegal activities. โ€œFrontex is also obliged to rescue people in distress at sea and to comply with all human rights treaties. They have failed tremendously. These practices must cease immediately, and the position of the director of Frontex seems to me untenable. There will have to be accountable in the European Parliament.โ€

Mandate greatly extended

Frontex has already been compromised because of the violation of migrants rights at national borders and the failure to intervene in violence by national border guards in Hungary, Bulgaria and Greece.

Following the refugee crisis in 2015, Frontexs mandate has been greatly expanded. Thousands of Frontex agents are deployed in different border areas to support national border guards.