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Revealed: EU border agency involved in hundreds of refugee pushbacks

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Investigation suggests Frontex’s database recorded incidents of illegal pushbacks in Aegean Sea as ‘prevention of departure’

Three migrants at sea after jumping off an inflatable boat into Turkish territorial waters, 2 April
Three migrants at sea after jumping off an inflatable boat that was carrying seven people back into Turkish waters, 2 April. Photograph: Turkish Coast Guard
Three migrants at sea after jumping off an inflatable boat that was carrying seven people back into Turkish waters, 2 April. Photograph: Turkish Coast Guard

The EU’s border agency has been involved in the pushbacks of at least 957 asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea between March 2020 and September 2021, according to a new investigation.

Frontex, the EU’s best-funded agency with a budget of €758m, is being investigated over previous allegations of complicity with Greek authorities in illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers, something the organisation has denied.

Now a joint investigation by Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, SRF Rundschau, Republik and Le Monde has revealed Frontex’s involvement in what appear to be pushbacks, according to its own database. According to the joint investigation, a freedom of information request (FoI) found the agency’s internal incident report database, called Jora, recorded sightings of asylum seeker pushbacks in the Aegean being labelled by officials as “prevention of departure”. The Frontex guidelines define this as an incident when migrants are stopped at sea by non-European country authorities in their territorial waters and sent back to their point of departure.

Frontex provided a redacted version of the database but included descriptions of 145 cases labelled “prevention of departure”, which differed from reports of the same incidents by the Turkish coastguard, witnesses, leaked documents and other confidential sources, when cross-referenced.

In at least 22 incidents, asylum seekers were taken off dinghies, put into Greek life rafts and left adrift at sea.

On 28 May last year, a group of almost 50 asylum seekers who had already landed on the Greek island of Lesbos contacted the Norwegian NGO, Aegean Boat Report, sending photos and a WhatsApp message showing their location near the island’s capital, Mytilene.

Hours later, some of the group were found by the Turkish coastguard at sea in orange life rafts. This case was later recorded in the Frontex database as a “prevention of departure”.

Two Frontex sources claimed to reporters that illegal pushbacks in the Aegean end up in the Jora database as “prevention of departure”. “Why don’t they just call it ‘pushbacks’ and get it over with?” said a Greek coastguard officer.

Human rights groups have called pushbacks in the Aegean “systematic”.

The fresh allegations against Frontex come before a 15 May referendum in Switzerland on the country’s involvement with the EU border agency. In 2021, Switzerland donated 24m Swiss francs (CHF) to the agency and the government plans to increase this donation to 61m Swiss francs by 2027.

But opponents of the agency’s expansion say it would make Switzerland directly responsible for human rights violations taking place on Europe’s borders. The referendum was called after a petition collected more than 62,000 signatures in support of cutting funding for the agency.

Greece and Frontex deny allegations of pushbacks and say their officials comply with human rights legislation, but there has been mounting pressure on Frontex executive director Fabrice Leggeri, and the EU has frozen part of its budget while allegations are investigated.

Migrants protest against pushbacks at the border with Turkey, near the Greek parliament in Athens on 20 February 2022
Migrants protest against pushbacks at the border with Turkey, near the Greek parliament in Athens on 20 February 2022. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Tineke Strik, the Dutch MEP and a member of the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group, called for a suspension of the border agency’s operations in Greece.

“A fundamental change in the culture” of the EU border agency was needed, she said, including a change of leadership, because Leggeri has “lost credibility in taking fundamental rights seriously”.

“[Frontex] should suspend operations in Greece,” Strik said. “We have so many credible reports from authorities such as the UN and the European Council, which all say that pushbacks are systematic. More needs to be done, otherwise you become part of the violations and complicit – and this is the problem that Frontex is facing.”

Frontex said it had no power to investigate the actions of individual countries and that it “ensures and promotes the respect of fundamental rights in all its border management activities”. The agency said it was “fully committed to uphold the highest standards of border control within our operations and our officers are bound by a code of conduct. This is the standard we bring to every one of our operations.”

In a statement, the agency added: “Fundamental rights, including the respect for the principle of non-refoulement, are at the core of all the agency’s activities.”

Non-refoulement is the fundamental principle underpinning international refugee law: a person requiring protection cannot be forcibly returned to a place where they will face harm.

It added that staff were obliged to report any violations of rights and that the agency had more than 20 monitors in place.

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