Parliament committee does not trust EU agency on reporting of pushbacks at Greek border
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Parliament committee does not trust EU agency on reporting of pushbacks at Greek border

Sea-Watch rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea, © Erik Marquardt (MEP and member of Liber committee)

The reporting of Frontex staff about alleged pushback of migrants by the Greek coast guard was discussed by the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee (Liber) on Tuesday (1 December).

Recent media reports have mentioned reports by Frontex staff, seconded by EU member states to the Aegean Sea to assist the Greek coast guard, about incidents when migrants where stopped when trying to reach EU shores or sent back (pushbacks) to the Turkish waters. Frontex has been accused of covering up the incidents or not reporting on them.

The hearing with Fabrice Leggeri, the Executive Director of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), did not go well. The committee expected that he would address its concerns but the hearing rather increased the credibility gap between the agency and the committee.

The chairperson of the committee, Spanish MEP Juan Fernando López Aquilar (S&D) was not satisfied with the answers given by Leggeri, who was given limited time during the hearing and did not focus on the concerns of the committee.  “Should I have to remind Frontex that it’s a heavy weight among EU agencies,” he asked rhetorically. “You will have to reply to the questions in writing.”

Leggeri acknowledged the existence of six serious incident reports drafted by Frontex staff but claimed that Frontex had not found any evidence of their participation, either directly or indirectly, in pushbacks. The only “strange situation” concerning the respect of fundamental rights was an incident in April, which was reported by a Frontex aircraft via life streaming.

The incident promoted Frontex to send a letter to the Greek authorities to which it received a reply two months later and with that the case was apparently closed. In another case in July, which was not reported by a Danish crew, Frontex asked the Greek authorities to investigate it.

“Frontex shouldn’t be divided by issues of transparency and have to rely on media reports,” he assured and referred to its internal reporting system. “Every participating EU country is dutybound to report on incidents where fundamental rights, such as the right to apply for asylum, might have been violated. Our task is to validate the reports.”

According to the director of Frontex, the host country – in this case Greece – is in command of the operations and the staff, boats and planes provided by other member states are there to assist the Greek coast guard.

He distinguished between search & rescue operations and border surveillance or interceptions at sea where apparently boats with migrants can be pushed away. As regards the latter type of operations, he admitted that he had asked the Commission services for legal guidance. The Commission did not reply immediately to a question from The Brussels Times if such advice has been given to Frontex.

The Frontex director also raised the issue of recruiting more Frontex staff with expertise in fundamental rights to monitor the operations. He regretted that not sufficient staff, neither in number nor in competence, had been recruited during 2020 and complained that the Commission was at fault for not allocating Frontex the budget for this.

Most members of the Liber committee, across the major political party groups, pressed Leggeri for more answers and started to doubt if they can trust him or Frontex any longer. In particular they did not understand why Frontex is not capable of assessing the legality of the operations and how an internal investigation by Frontex of the incidents can be trusted.

Sweden is one of the member states participating in Frontex’ operations. The Swedish member of the management board of Frontex has reportedly described an incident at a board meeting in November. He did not respond to a request for comment from The Brussels Times and a spokesperson of the Swedish National Police Authority referred to Frontex for any specific questions about the incident.

Leggeri said at the hearing that he would be prepared to share reports but it was not clear if that included reports drafted by member states.

“I’m convinced that pushbacks do occur and that the number of incidents is underreported,” Swedish MEP Malin Björk (GUE/NGL) commented. “The system doesn’t function. We have established an agency whom we cannot trust, beyond democratic control. The director should resign. Something has to be done about the culture of immunity and silence at Frontex.”

She added that Frontex cannot investigate itself and is considering if the European Parliament should set up a formal committee of inquiry to investigate the pushbacks and the alleged maladministration of Frontex. In the meantime, she welcomes the recent decision by the European Ombudsman to open an inquiry to look into how Frontex deals with alleged breaches of fundamental rights.

The EU member states and the European Commission are represented in the management board of Frontex. Asked by The Brussels Times about its reaction to the reports on pushbacks, a Commission source replied that “it takes all reports of pushbacks very seriously” and recalled that there is an ongoing process that is looking into these matters at the request of the Commission.

The management board will hold a further extraordinary meeting next week in order to consider in more detail the replies provided by Frontex.

Update: The European Commission has provided the following clarifications on the issues mentioned in the article.

On incident reports: The reports are not public documents but have been seen by the management board of Frontex, incl. the Commission members.

On recruitment of Fundamental Rights Monitors: The Commission has stressed the importance for Frontex to recruit at least 40 monitors by December this year and has provided the posts for them. The recruitment process was however launched by Frontex only at the end of November. The recruitment should not be gradual as proposed by the director of Frontex.

On legal guidance: The Commission confirms that Frontex has asked for the establishment of an “evaluation committee” that would discuss the interpretation of Regulation 656/2014 on rules for the surveillance of the external sea borders.

Frontex wanted among others to discuss article 6 of the regulation on what measures to take when there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an intercepted vessel may be carrying persons intending to circumvent checks at border crossing points or is engaged in the smuggling of migrants by sea.

M.Apelblat
The Brussels Times