An investigation released by various international media sources on 24th October denounces illegal practices of Greek coast guards, mostly associated with alleged pushback of refugee claimants. Claims that some of these operations involved the EU border agency, Frontex, have been denied by both EU forces and the Greek government. This investigation would constitute the first proof of the EU agency’s violation of international laws.
An online Spiegel article dated 24th October relates the story of Jouma al-Badi, a young Syrian planning on applying for political asylum, who arrived on the Greek island of Samos on 28th April in a rubber dinghy that he had boarded in Turkey, along with 21 other refugees. According to him and to local witnesses, Greek security forces captured the migrants, “dragged them back out to sea and released them on an inflatable rubber raft” instead of following their duty, under international law, to “give the new arrivals a hearing and field their applications for asylum.”
The report demonstrates through thorough data analysis that this happened despite the presence of Frontex surveillance planes. Other incidents include footage of a Frontex ship making waves near a migrant lifeboat. Six other instances where the agency was either directly or indirectly involved in pushing back migrants in the Aegean Sea were also reported. Having deployed about 600 European border guards, along with ships, drones, planes and thermal vision vehicles, the agency had originally claimed that it had only witnessed one pushback operation since March.
Greek authorities have categorically denied allegations of pushbacks. Frontex has not commented on the specific reported incidents. However, it has reiterated its commitment to preventing refoulement, as stated in the internal code of conduct that binds their operational officers. It claimed that concerns about refoulement are systematically addressed through “operational dialogues with the relevant host state, which has the final say in how operations on its territory or in its search and rescue zone are conducted.”
The genuine effectiveness of Frontex operations is questionable in light of the evidence gathered by the newly released report. Lighthouse Reports, Bellingcat, “Report Mainz” (a program on ARD, the German public broadcaster), Japanese broadcaster TV Asahi and Der Spiegel have compiled data from pushback reports by NGOs and interviews with refugees and witnesses and compared them with tracked positions of Frontex units. This constitutes the first proof that Frontex officials knew about the Greek guards’ pushbacks. For many experts, the level of toleration exposed by the report amounts to complicity.
“These pushbacks violate the ban on collective expulsions and international maritime law,” says Dana Schmalz, an expert on international law at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg. Non-refoulement is a core principle of international refugee laws. According to Itamar Mann, associate law professor at the University of Haifa, these violations have regretfully become systematic as their “harsh realities are gradually embraced by Frontex as an organization.” He calls for a greater push for accountability on the part of European public and politicians.
This report opens the door to a debate about the non-compliance of European states and European surveillance agencies to international laws. Questions about the degree to which European citizens are complicit in these violations naturally enfolds from these debates. European citizens have the power to put pressure on their national government to comply with the existing international regulation mechanisms and to implement effective policy measures when operational gaps are found.
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