It is no secret that refugees are illegally pushed back at Europe's external borders. What Europe calls 'border protection' leads to human rights being disregarded and people being put in mortal danger—if not actually dying. In the Aegean this year, it was primarily the Greek coast guard that abandoned people seeking protection in life rafts at sea and destroyed rubber dinghies. However, it is too easy to blame Greece alone. European authorities and ships under NATO command are also involved in illegal pushbacks in the Aegean.
This autumn, Frontex's active and passive involvement in at least six pushbacks was revealed. Frontex blames the 'host-state'—i.e. Greece—for this. Greece meanwhile denies carrying out pushbacks at all. The fact that there is clear evidence seems to bother neither the Greek nor the European authorities. On 8 June, the Romanian Frontex vessel 'MAI1102' was involved in a pushback, of which there is even video footage (https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/eu-border-force-helps-greece-violate-asylum-seekers-/1924458). On 15 August, a Romanian Frontex vessel 'MAI1103' was involved in another pushback together with the German naval vessel 'Berlin', which was under NATO command in the Aegean 1 2
An internal document published by Der Spiegel also describes a pushback documented by Frontex on the night of 18-19 April 2020. A Frontex aircraft had observed refugees first being brought on board a Greek coast guard vessel and then abandoned in an unpowered rubber dinghy in Turkish waters.
Frontex officials reported the incident and Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri contacted the Greek government, but ultimately did not classify the case as a violation of fundamental rights.3
The incident was not the first in which Frontex was proved to have been aware of an illegal pushback and knowingly ignored human rights violations in the Aegean. In March 2020, the crew of a Danish Frontex vessel refused to participate in an illegal pushback ordered by the Greek authorities. The case was reported, but Frontex showed no interest in investigating it. Instead, investigations were closed within a day, the pushback was presented as an isolated case and Leggeri described the whole thing as a misunderstanding.45
In response to recent reporting on Frontex's involvement in illegal pushbacks in the Aegean by various journalists and NGOs, Frontex announced internal investigations and then finally presented a report in a special meeting in November 2020. Leggeri admits that Frontex vessels were in the vicinity of pushbacks, but claims there was no knowledge of any violations of the law. Since no Frontex crew reported a human rights violation, Leggeri assumes that there could not have been one. He also backs the Greek coast guard and stresses that Frontex always follows the instructions of the local authorities.6 While this may be true, Frontex is still actively supporting human rights violations.
Frontex's involvement in illegal pushbacks and human rights violations is not new. In the Western Balkans and on the land border between Greece and Turkey, evidence and reports of pushbacks have been systematically ignored for years.7 Over the same time in the Aegean, Frontex has also been involved in pushbacks, or at least informed about them. For example, a 2014 report by Pro Asyl8 and the AlarmPhone case of 11 June 2016, showed that Romanian as well as a Portuguese Frontex vessels were involved in a pushback9.
A closer look at the structure and functioning of the Frontex agency highlights why it is not enough to demand that Frontex itself should not participate in human rights violations and report those of others. Frontex was founded in 2004 as a European 'border management agency' and works with both its own staff and officials from EU member states. There are several Frontex missions, divided by region, each based on its own code of conduct.
Frontex's mission is to 'protect' Europe's external borders, but not at any cost. Human rights violations must in theory be reported, with the respective mission then aborted. Since Frontex is active in a field where human rights violations are not uncommon, there is an urgent need for an independent supervisory body, which has never existed to date. Instead, its cooperation with national border control authorities is absolutely non-transparent. The lack of supervision and scope for loss of control over the actions of the authority make fertile ground for abuses of power. At the same time, an enlargement of Frontex is already being planned. By 2027, Frontex is to receive a budget of around 12 billion euros as well as 10,000 operational forces as a permanent reserve.1011 As journalist Arne Semsrott summarises:
„"Frontex, equipped with a budget of billions, a new headquarters in Warsaw, its own vehicles and soon also weapons and uniforms, is largely allowed to do what it wants at the borders. It now hands out contracts worth millions to arms companies, lobbies on its own behalf in Brussels and aggressively attacks journalists who report critically on the issue.“12
Frontex’s pitfalls are inherent in the structure of the agency and cannot be solved by reforms. A commission of enquiry or demands for Leggeri's resignation are far from sufficient. In fact, the very structure and activities of the agency reveal that Frontex is simply not compatible with a Europe that claims human rights.
Respect for human rights is a minimum standard to be expected from individuals, institutions and authorities alike. European authorities that do not respect it should be abolished. The billions channeled annually on Frontex's operations could be spent differently to actual save lives at borders. This year, more than 1,000 people have died at Europe's external borders, most of them on the Mediterranean. In the absence of safe escape routes, the coming years will not see fewer deaths. The barricading that makes Europe's borders a lawless and deadly place, and which Frontex exemplifies, is not a solution. It serves only to lull Europe into a comfortable illusion of human rights and freedoms while denying them to all outsiders.