EU border chief faces grilling over migrant pushback claims

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FILE – In this Friday, Feb. 28, 2020 file photo, migrants arrive with a dinghy accompanied by a Frontex vessel at the village of Skala Sikaminias, on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey. The head of the European Union’s border and coast guard agency faces a grilling on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020 by EU lawmakers as pressure mounts over allegations that Frontex was involved in illegal pushbacks aimed at preventing migrants or refugees entering Europe through the Greek islands. (AP Photo/Michael Varaklas, File)

BRUSSELS (AP) — The head of the European Union’s border and coast guard agency faces a grilling Tuesday by EU lawmakers as pressure mounts over allegations that Frontex was involved in illegal pushbacks aimed at preventing migrants or refugees entering Europe through the Greek islands.

A joint investigation published in October by media outlets Bellingcat, Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, ARD and TV Asahi said that video and other publicly available data suggest Frontex “assets were actively involved in one pushback incident at the Greek-Turkish maritime border in the Aegean Sea.”

The report said personnel from the agency, which monitors and polices migrant movements around Europe’s borders, were present at another incident and “have been in the vicinity of four more since March.”

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told The Associated Press on Tuesday that she still has confidence in Frontex’s managing board but remains deeply concerned about the allegations.

After the report surfaced, Frontex announced an internal investigation, and Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri said in October that “so far, no documents or other materials have been found to substantiate any accusations of violations of the law or the Frontex Code of Conduct by deployed officers.”

He said the agency does “not tolerate any violations of the fundamental rights in any of our activities.”

Pushbacks are considered contrary to international refugee protection agreements, which say people should not be expelled or returned a country where their life and safety might be in danger due to their race, religion, nationality or being members of a social or political group.

Frontex’s board met to discuss the allegations late last month. The board said afterwards that the European Commission had ordered it to “hold a further extraordinary meeting within the next two weeks in order to consider in more detail the replies provided by the agency.” That meeting is scheduled to take place on Dec. 9.

The allegations are extremely embarrassing for the Commission. In September it unveiled sweeping new reforms to the EU’s asylum system, which proved dismally inadequate when over 1 million migrants arrived in 2015, many of them Syrian refugees entering the Greek islands via Turkey.

Part of the EU’s migration reforms includes a system of independent monitoring involving rights experts to ensure that there are no pushbacks at Europe’s borders. Migrant entries have dropped to a relative trickle in recent years, although many migrants still languish on some Greek islands waiting for their asylum claims to be processed or to be sent back.

During a visit to Morocco, Johansson told the AP that the report “concerns me a lot. If it’s true, it’s totally unacceptable. A European agency has to comply to EU law and fundamental rights with no excuse.”

Johansson said she has “full confidence in the process that (has) gone on in the management board and the sub-group they are setting up” to continue the investigation, but, she noted that “there were a lot of questions put to the director. And he has not answered these questions.”

Frontex says its work in the eastern Aegean Sea has been complicated by a dispute between Turkey and Greece over their maritime borders. Greek and Turkish coast guard ships are routinely involved in standoffs and threats in the relatively narrow stretch of water that separates the two countries.

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Tarik El Barakah reported from Rabat, Morocco.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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