Frontex: Agency's initial response to alleged involvement in pushbacks


Statewatch has obtained a note produced by Frontex for the November 2020 Management Board meeting, when the allegations that the agency was involved in or had knowledge of pushbacks in the Aegean were discussed.

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See: Frontex: Note for Management Board meeting, 10 November 2020 (5 November 2020, Ref. BMD/GRP-2018-00017/899751/2020, pdf)

The note provides an overview of the situation at the Greek-Turkish borders from the start of 2020 onwards, highlighting geopolitical tensions, the decision by the Turkish authorities to stop halting departures towards Greece, and the onset of the pandemic.

During the period in question (March to October 2020), Frontex launched two new operations in Greece, 'Rapid Border Intervention Aegean 2020' and 'Rapid Border Intervention Evros 2020', at the Greek-Turkish land and sea borders respectively.

The report notes some specific problems posed by the pandemic. For example, it became difficult to ensure the provision of equipment and officers by member states, and officials already present in Greece had to extend their tour of duty.

One paragraph in particular will likely be of interest to organisations arguing that Frontex and the Greek authorities have breached international law. A recent submission by the organisations Front-Lex and Legal Centre Lesvos calls on Frontex to justify its operations in Greece this year, noting (emphasis added):

"Inter alia, on 1 March 2020, the Greek National Security Council decided to unilaterally, unlawfully, suspend the right to seek asylum in Greece for a month period. In parallel, the Greek state systematically pressed criminal charges against asylum seekers for illegal entry into the country, despite Article 31 of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees prohibiting such prosecution. New arrivals were summarily and arbitrarily detained across the Aegean islands in ports, overcrowded buses and ships, or on beaches without shelter; denied access to sanitation facilities; medical care; and asylum procedures."

On this point, Frontex's note to the Management Board says (emphasis added):

"Change of the national Border Protection Tactics and introduction of the preventive measures concerning arrivals at sea. Special measures to protect the borders were issued and implemented in TUR-GRC border (sea and land) involving Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) and Hellenic Navy. Based on the KYSEA decision, the Greek national assets were focusing on border surveillance, early detection and prevention of entry. In case of an early detection incident at sea, in case of possible illegal immigration vessel is detected while still in the territory of Turkey, the national assets take over the responsibility of the incidents, as by general principle. Greece has always highlighted that all the Border Protection Measures taken by its national authorities are conducted in line with international maritime law and human rights principles. Frontex deployed surveillance assets have been operating as described by the respective Operational plan."

The report continues with a description of how operational command of Frontex's missions in Greece is organised, an overview of the Serious Incident Reporting mechanism, and finally an "assessment of the alleged cases as appeared in various media outlets."

Here, the agency seeks to distance itself from any possibility of being involved in or having knowledge of pushbacks, repeatedly stating that "Accusations only assume that the [vessel deployed on the Frontex operation] should have observed the claimed incident at sea."

It also casts doubt on the work of the organisation Alarm Phone, who have saved thousands of lives over the last few years through their work to ensure the rescue of people in distress at sea. Regarding one of the alleged pushback incidents, the Frontex report says: "No factual reporting on pushbacks (only Alarm Phone organisation
information on Twitter)."

The report draws the following conclusions:

  • Based on reporting of the activities and incidents within the Frontex coordinated operations, there can be identified an occurred Prevention of departure incident within the same period of time of the Bellingcat report for the files above.
  • Also, the corresponding Frontex deployed assets have been patrolling in the claimed areas;
  • No exact and factual conclusion can be drawn from the claims for Frontex participation nor awareness on the claimed pushback incidents;
  • There are no indications that in any incidents claimed by the Bellingcat Frontex assets would have been operating in the Turkish Territorial Waters, thus being directly involved in pushback activities;
  • None of the incidents claimed by the Bellingcat are reported as a SIR within Frontex operations;
  • Assuming what the assets have been seeing or observing leaves room for speculation, since there are no facts on exact timeline of events nor the prevailing conditions (sea, weather, darkness, e.g.). Nonetheless, there are some unclear events with no detailed information available on their occurrence;
  • Politicisation of the operational theatre in the Aegean Sea; incidents involving Greek assets, Turkish CG assets and Frontex assets in a very close distances in a very close proximity of the borderline are always tense, unclear and challenging.

This was not enough to satisfy the Management Board, which set up a working group to undertake its own investigation.

The working group's preliminary report was produced some three months after the Frontex note to the Management Board and was also made public by Statewatch. It identified five situations of alleged pushbacks that still require clarification, in part due to the agency failing to provide relevant information.

A European Parliament working group has also been set up recently to investigate the allegations of involvement with pushbacks, and other issues concerning the management and functioning of the EU's border agency.

You can find more information, documentation and reporting on the Frontex pushbacks accusations in the Statewatch Database.

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