Brussels (Brussels Morning) Fourteen MEPs yesterday grilled Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri and Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson about reports that the European border agency was involved in or condoned pushing back migrants on the Greek-Turkish maritime border.
During the discussions, MEP Javier Moreno Sanchez (S&D) was highly critical of the poor internal communications among EU institutions and challenged how it was that the European Parliament came to be informed about the case through the media.
The Frontex chief stated he was always available and happy to cooperate with the EU and rejected any suggestion that the agency’s board or management had been negligent in their responsibilities. “I can assure you that I’m personally committed to cooperate with the scrutiny group, the European Parliament and other audit bodies within the EU”, Leggeri told the MEPs, adding that they were welcome to review documents and visit the Frontex headquarters.
A working group of the Frontex Board of Directors is to present the results of its investigation into the allegations on Friday, he said, while insisting that the agency does not support pushbacks in any way.
There was loud disagreement from MEP Sira Rego (S&D) who accused Leggeri of “lying once again in the European Parliament”. Rego went on to say that the Frontex director had given assurances that the agency had not violated fundamental rights in the Aegean, “but the internal audit report contradicts him”, she said citing Der Spiegel’s investigative report.
Taking a different stance, MEP Nicolas Bay (Identity Group) was sceptical about the EU’s approach towards Frontex, describing the situation as a “political cabal”. Bay contended that the agency’s job is to protect borders, not allow an influx of migrants into Europe.
The Commission is currently interpreting the law that governs Frontex, although Johansson reiterated that this is the European Court of Justice’s job and that the EU executive is merely collaborating. “We have been tasked by the Frontex’s management board to make some clarifications on the existing legislation and my services are currently preparing it”, Commissioner Ylva Johansson declared.
“Frontex has the obligation to allow individuals to apply for asylum if they ask for it and if they have a proper cause”, she asserted.
Contradictory information from Greece and Turkey has complicated the work of the parliamentary inquiry, which still has four months to run. The next meeting is to take place before the Easter break, the Parliament’s Vice-President, Roberta Metsola (EPP), announced.
Pushbacks are illegal under international law. The inquiry has been looking into instances when boats were blocked from docking in Greece, kept offshore by the Hellenic Coast Guard until the vessels either ran out of fuel or their engines were disabled and were then pushed or forced back into Turkish waters.
“If you disregard the Greek lies, the [Spiegel’s] report clearly shows that the Greek Coast Guard systematically pushes back refugees in the Aegean and Frontex Management knows about it. The report even discusses suspension of the joint operation but shies away from that for political reasons”, Spiegel reporter Steffen Lüdke stated.
Following the investigation made public by Der Spiegel back in October, legal actions accumulated against Frontex, with various claims that it had been involved in rights’ violations.
Allegations to this effect were made by the Syria Justice and Accountability (SJAC) and by Front-Lex with the support from the Legal Centre Lesvos.
In a plea to the International Criminal Court, the SJAC argues that “Greek government officials and their agents, in addition to Frontex officials and their agents, have perpetrated a widespread and systematic attack against refugees since the EU-Turkey Deal entered into force in March 2016.”
Lorraine Leete, Coordinator at the Levos Legal Centre has accused the EU of “perpetrating violence” for many years against migrants at its borders and of doing so with “complete impunity”.
“It seems EU and Greek authorities believed that under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic they could escalate their attack on migrants in the Aegean region without anyone reacting”, Leete said.