The European border agency (Frontex) acknowledges having witnessed or had knowledge of more than thirty suspected cases of hot return of immigrants from Greece to Turkey, all of them within the framework of the joint surveillance operation of the agency with the guard Greek coastal. The dramatic recount, to which EL PAÍS has had access, has been forced by the European Commission, which has asked the agency for explanations about its alleged negligence or complicity with the illegal returns revealed in October by various German media.
The agency assures that it does not have evidence of the cases reported in these reports. But it offers details of dozens of incidents that, far from clearing the doubts of Brussels, seem to increase the concern and leave the director of the agency, French Fabrice Leggeri, in a compromised situation. In the European Parliament, requests for Leggeri’s resignation are intensifying while the European Commission refers to the internal investigation launched by Frontex, whose conclusions are expected on January 21.
The serious incidents will be analyzed next Wednesday during an extraordinary meeting of the Agency’s Board of Directors, the body responsible for supervising the work of the management and in which a representative of each country in the Schengen zone (including Spain) and two representatives of the European Commission.
The meeting will have on the table the detailed account of up to 33 incidents, in 11 of which Frontex acknowledges having some type of evidence about a possible hot return, including video images. All this is contained in an 18-page document to which this newspaper has had access and in which the agency specifies its action.
Most of the incidents were classified as “frustrated departures” from Turkey despite the evidence that sometimes showed the presence of migrants in Greek waters and even aboard the coast guard ship in one of the cases.
This is the second extraordinary meeting of the Council in less than a month to try to clarify the responsibility of the agency in some returns attributed to the Greek authorities but in which it is suspected that Frontex, at least, preferred to look the other way. If the suspicions were confirmed, the agency would have tolerated a violation of the principle of non-refoulement without an adequate process, which European law applies both to asylum seekers and to people who enter the territory of an EU State irregularly. .
The first extraordinary meeting of the Council was held on November 10 after the urgent request of the European Commissioner for the Interior, Ylva Johansson. The meeting was attended by Leggeri, who was unable to convince all the delegations about the proper performance of the agency.
The delegations of Germany and Switzerland and, above all, that of the European Commission then sent an exhaustive written questionnaire on the many doubts that the manager’s intervention had failed to clear up. Questions from Johansson’s department in particular point directly to Leggeri’s possible liability in the alleged negligence of Frontex.
The agency has responded in the 18-page document detailing the 33 incidents that occurred between April and November this year. All the cases occurred in joint operations between Frontex and the Greek security forces. And only in the last four months there have been up to four serious incidents with alleged violation of fundamental rights.
The sequence of suspected cases is usually very similar. The aerial surveillance of Frontex or the Greek guard detects the presence of some zodiac full of migrants heading to the Greek islands of the Aegean from the Turkish coast. Greek forces prevent arrival or disembarkation and the Zodiac returns to Turkey. At times, the Greek authorities order the Frontex surveillance apparatus to move away from the area or to follow its route and ignore the matter. The incident is consistently rated as a “failed exit” despite doubts against that rating or evidence to the contrary.
Among the incidents that raise doubts is, for example, that of a boat with 40 migrants that reached the island of Samos on 10 August, but was prevented from docking and forced to return to Turkey. In many others, the Greek authorities claim that the boats are turned around in full view of surveillance forces without ever leaving Turkish waters, an explanation generally accepted by Frontex.
The Commission asks Leggeri whether, in his capacity as Chief Executive Officer, he has taken any action in relation to the incidents, such as the suspension or termination of the activities concerned. “In all cases, the relevant Greek authorities have been informed and required to launch an internal investigation. The evidence from these investigations does not suggest any irregular or illegal activity on the part of the Greek coast guard ”. An answer that will hardly calm Brussels.
Doubts about Frontex’s actions come at a delicate moment for the European Commission. The community body wants to turn the agency into a true supranational police force, with more than 10,000 troops. Brussels hopes to deploy the first European guards in the spring and their arrival raises some resentments among the authorities and national security forces.
The pressure on Leggeri to clarify as soon as possible what happened in the Aegean has been redoubled since October. The European ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, announced on November 10 the opening of an investigation into the treatment Frontex gives to complaints for violation of fundamental rights.
The president of the Parliamentary Committee on Freedoms, Spanish MEP Juan Fernando López Aguilar, also sent a detailed questionnaire to the director of Frontex on 4 November in relation to some of the operations under suspicion. Leggeri appeared last week before the commission chaired by López Aguilar, where representatives of the socialist group, the second largest in Parliament, called for the Frenchman’s resignation. The liberal group did not go that far, but fell one step away from supporting the request. “We would like to know if we can trust you, because I am beginning to ask myself,” snapped liberal MEP Sophie in’t Veld.