Frontex, the European border agency, opened an internal investigation on Tuesday into allegations of having participated in hot returns on the Greek border. The community guard, one of the pillars of the migration pact proposed by Brussels, has been accused of being involved in at least six episodes in which migrants were deprived of their right to seek asylum in the EU. In a statement, Frontex says that so far it has not found evidence to support these alleged violations of its code of conduct.
The Greek coast guard has been accused on several occasions of having carried out illegal returns of migrants in the Aegean Sea, especially as a result of tensions on the border with Turkey. However, an investigation by various media, including Der sppiegel Y Bellingcat, revealed with graphic material that several Frontex officers deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean were involved in these practices. Specifically, these articles indicate that, since last March, Frontex assets have been present in at least six interventions that could be considered illegal.
According to the investigations of these media, on at least one occasion Frontex had directly participated in the hot return of a boat with migrants that was trying to reach Greece. That episode took place on June 8 off the northeast coast of Lesbos. The Turkish Anadolu agency released images of a Romanian Frontex ship blocking a boat with 47 immigrants. The media contrasted them with other images to conclude that the migrants, later rescued by the Turkish coast guard, were prevented from reaching European territory.
These media published another incident, on August 15, in which Frontex was present, although they cannot prove that it acted directly. In another four, the boats were less than five kilometers from the place where illegal interventions took place, for which they attribute that they covered their eyes so as not to prevent migrant returns.
The European Commission urged Frontex and the Greek authorities last Monday to carry out an investigation into these alleged violations of Community law. The European coast guard responded through its Twitter account that it continued to support Greece at its external borders with “full respect for fundamental rights” and international law; and confirmed that Athens had begun to inquire about the images in which it is involved in illegal returns.
However, this Tuesday, the executive director of the Warsaw-based agency, the Frenchman Fabrice Leggeri, informed the Commissioner for the Interior, the Swedish Ylva Johansson, of the opening of this internal investigation. "Our goal is to maintain the highest standards of border surveillance in all our operations and we do not tolerate any violation of fundamental rights in any of our activities," Leggeri said in a statement.
Background in Greece
The Community border guard had already opened two files on its operations in the Aegean Sea. According to Frontex, earlier this year Leggeri had asked Athens to investigate two incidents that occurred around the Greek islands. The investigations of one of them were concluded without evidence that "illegal acts" had occurred. The second episode, which Frontex claims to have communicated to the European Parliament, refers to “incorrect instructions” that the Greek Coast Guard gave to the crews of the Danish ships deployed in the area, although this misunderstanding has already been clarified.
According to the statement, Frontex has no evidence of other conflicts in the area and recalls that the situation in the Aegean has been complicated for the ships of the European guard due to the tensions between Greece and Turkey over their maritime borders, which it says that it has affected search and rescue activities for immigrants and refugees.
The community agency participates in the tasks of controlling this area within the so-called Operation Poseidon, which has around 600 agents who, among other functions, are in charge of border surveillance, help in the identification and registration of migrants who they want to enter the EU. Still, Frontex maintains that it has rescued around 2,700 people so far this year.