The EU’s controversial border agency, Frontex, has come under renewed pressure as a Syrian asylum seeker launched legal action over an alleged illegal pushback.
As a result, one MEP has called for Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri to be sacked, with the European Commission also coming in for criticism.
A pushback, where an asylum seeker or refugee is forced back over a border without their case being resolved, is illegal under international law.
The plaintiff, Alaa Hamoudi, is seeking €500,000 ($552,225) from Frontex over action he says the Greek coastguard took on April 28 to April 29, 2020, AFP reported, citing the Front-Lex legal association representing him.
Front-Lex said that after Mr Hamoudi arrived on the Greek island of Samos with about 20 other asylum seekers, they were loaded by Greek authorities on to a crowded inflatable dinghy and abandoned at sea for 17 hours.
A Frontex plane surveilled the situation at the time, alleged Mr Hamoudi, who now resides in Turkey.
“It was a horrible, hard time,” he said, according to Front-Lex. “It is unforgettable. They threw us on to a boat as if we had committed a crime. I lost all my hope. All my dreams and ambitions disappeared because of the pushback.”
Frontex, the EU's biggest agency with a budget of €750m this year, has been helping the Greek coastguard monitor the Greek side of the maritime border with Turkey.
Investigators from the European Anti-Fraud Office, better known as OLAF, had conducted a year-long investigation in Frontex amid allegations that migrants were harassed and pushed back.
Those conclusions were sent to Frontex in February but have been kept confidential.
However, they were leaked to German newspaper Der Speigel, which reported that three Frontex officials had sought to conceal evidence that Greek authorities had carried out pushbacks in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Cornelia Ernst, a German MEP for The Left Party, said the European Parliament and Commission knew that Mr Leggeri should be fired. She described him as “the wrong person” for Frontex.
“We don’t like the agency … but Leggeri is like a king in his kingdom, like a prince.”
He has also been accused of lying to MEPs for saying that Frontex had not breached fundamental rights in the Aegean.
“He was lying day by day in parliament, we know that. We could see the pushback one day and the next day he said ‘there are no pushbacks,’” Ms Ernst said.
She said it was the “moral obligation” of the EU to protect refugees and their right to asylum. Ms Ernst said that if European home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson would not fire Mr Leggeri, then she should leave her job.
An October 2020 investigation carried out by the open-source analysis group Bellingcat with the journalist co-operative Lighthouse Reports and several media outlets including Der Spiegel determined that Frontex was complicit in refoulements in Greek waters.
The findings triggered several inquiries in the EU over Frontex and its practices.
However a working group set up by Frontex's own management board released a conclusion that there were “no indications” of the April 28 to April 29 incident reported by those outlets.