EU border force Frontex urged to halt migrant operations off Greece

Greek-based NGO accuses Frontex of complicity in violence against migrants trying to reach EU countries

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016 file photo, Afghan refugees disembark from a dinghy after crossing a part of the Aegean sea from Turkish coast to the Greek island of Chios. Human rights lawyers on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 have called on Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, to immediately stop its activities in the Aegean Sea and formally accused the agency of violating the rights of migrants to seek asylum, as well as other breaches of EU and international law. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File)
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The European Union's border force faces demands to end its operations off the coast of Greece because of alleged complicity in violence against migrants trying to reach its islands in small boats.

A Greece-based NGO called for the dismantling of Frontex after what it said was mounting evidence of human rights breaches following reported cases of boats carrying migrants being driven from the coast. Since March 2020, thousands of migrants have tried to reach the 27-nation EU by crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey.

“Frontex is complicit in documented state violence against migrants in the Aegean Sea region in particular and in Greece more broadly,” said the group, Legal Centre Lesvos. “Frontex must immediately suspend or terminate its operations in the Aegean Sea region.”

Greece consistently denied being involved in so-called pushbacks – removing migrant boats from its waters – after a surge in attempted crossings from Turkey since March last year.

The practice is said to sometimes involve boats blocking dinghies until they run out of fuel and are then pushed or towed back into Turkish territorial waters. NGOs accused Frontex of failing to act or even assisting the Greek authorities in pushbacks.

"The operational pattern of pushbacks on the part of the Greek authorities in the Aegean violate numerous fundamental rights and international protection obligations, and amount to crimes against humanity," the centre said.

The group, which lobbies the EU and provides legal advice to migrants arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos, said the agency and its head, Fabrice Leggeri, had failed to act against the alleged rights abuses.

It said Frontex had failed to give "transparent, truthful and accurate" accounts of the circumstances of pushbacks in the Aegean Sea in which the agency was implicated, including during hearings before the European Parliament.

It said Frontex launched its mission in March despite evidence that Greece had introduced a set of "violent anti-migrant measures" in response to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opening the border after a series of disputes with the EU.

The measures used by Greece and detailed by the centre allegedly include:

:: The suspension of the right to asylum in “flagrant violation” of EU asylum law

:: Illegally pressing criminal charges against asylum seekers for unlawful entry

:: Detaining migrants in ports, buses and ships and denying them proper shelter, sanitation and medical attention

:: Increased violence at sea, including one case of firing on a rubber dinghy

Despite allegations of offences, the EU leadership gave strong backing to the government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis amid fears of a new migration crisis in Europe that in 2015 led to the rise of anti-migrant right-wing political parties across the bloc.

A media consortium including the investigative unit Bellingcat reported last year that it had secured evidence that appeared to show how a Frontex vessel was used to block a dinghy carrying 47 people.

Experts said the incident appeared to be in breach of a ban on the forcible return of migrants to countries where they could face persecution.

The agency claimed at the time that its actions in support of the Greek authorities were "in full respect of fundamental rights and international law", but that it had spoken to Greece about “some incidents at sea”.

The agency said it launched an internal inquiry last year but so far it had “found no evidence of Frontex participating in violations of human rights”.

The agency was supposed to have hired about 40 officers to monitor the way fundamental rights are respected during its operations, but as of last month it had failed to employ any. Portugal, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said that it “will be very proactive in demanding that Frontex fully respects European law”.

Frontex announced on Tuesday that it had updated its Fundamental Rights Strategy, which detailed how it complied with laws protecting the rights of those crossing EU borders.

“The Fundamental Rights Strategy also covers the responsibilities of participants in Frontex operational activities,” it said.