In 2020, it has become more than clear that pushbacks are not carried out by the Greek authorities alone, but in cooperation with the European border protection agency FRONTEX. After a joint publication by DER SPIEGEL and Bellingcat  in October finally brought the human rights violations at the EU external border between Greece and Turkey to the attention of the international media, further publications and isolated reactions from politicians followed.
In Germany, for example, several inquiries were made about the involvement of German authorities in illegal practices in the context of Frontex and NATO operations. After months of dismissive reactions from the Bundestag, the burden of proof provided by investigative journalism, eyewitness accounts, and human rights monitoring was too high to continue to be ignored. In January 2021, the Interior Committee finally dealt with the issue, questioning Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri about his agency’s violations of the law and receiving sharp criticism from individual MPs. But this can only be the beginning, a political change is needed, in which these brutal pushbacks are no longer even possible.
In the fall of 2020, Frontex’s active and passive involvement in at least six pushbacks was revealed. Frontex blames the „host-state“, i.e. Greece, for this. Greece itself again denies conducting pushbacks at all. The fact that there is clear evidence does not seem to bother either the Greek or the European authorities. On 8 June 2020, the Romanian Frontex vessel „MAI1102“ was involved in a pushback, of which there is even video footage . Another Romanian Frontex vessel „MAI1103“ was involved in a pushback on 15 August 2020, together with the German naval vessel „A1411 Berlin“, which was under NATO command in the Aegean Sea.
In response to recent reporting on Frontex’s involvement in illegal pushbacks in the Aegean by various journalists and NGOs, Frontex first announced internal investigations and finally presented a report in a special meeting in November 2020. Fabrice Leggeri admits that Frontex vessels were in the vicinity of pushbacks, but were unaware of any violations. Since no Frontex crew reported a human rights violation, Leggeri assumes that none could have occurred. Moreover, he backs the Greek coast guard, emphasizing that Frontex always follows the instructions of local authorities . While this may be true, Frontex is actively supporting human rights violations by doing so.
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 . And in the Aegean, Frontex has also been involved in pushbacks for years, or at least informed about them, as shown, for example, by a 2014 report by Pro Asyl  and the AlarmPhone case of 11 June 2016, in which a Romanian as well as a Portuguese Frontex vessel were involved in a pushback .
Why it is not enough to demand that Frontex should not participate in human rights violations and report those of others becomes clear when one takes a closer look at the structure and functioning of the agency. Frontex was established as a European „border management agency“ in 2004 and works both with its own staff and with officials from EU member states. There are several Frontex missions, divided by region, each based on its own code of conduct.
Respecting human rights is a minimum standard to be expected from individuals as well as institutions and authorities. European authorities that do not respect it should be abolished. The billions spent annually on Frontex’s work could be spent differently and actually save lives at the borders. In 2020, over 1,000 people died at Europe’s external borders, mainly in the Mediterranean. Without safe escape routes, there will be no fewer deaths in the years to come. The compartmentalization that makes European borders a lawless and deadly place, and which Frontex so exemplifies, is not a solution. Europe is making itself comfortable in an illusion of human rights and freedoms that is based on the denial of precisely these freedoms to all outsiders.
German involvement in pushbacks
Several reports also make it clear that other European actors beyond the European Border Agency are involved and finally shake the narrative of sole Greek responsibility. Most recently, the presence of the German Federal Police ship „Uckermark“ caused a stir during a pushback in early August. 40 people were forced back into Turkish waters and abandoned there in the open sea. Instead of rescuing the people and ensuring their access to a fair asylum procedure, as would have been their duty, the Federal Police thus actively participated in the injustice against people on the run. Not even a „Serious Incident Report“, which is required when human rights violations are suspected, was prepared by the Federal Police .
Unsurprisingly, the German Ministry of the Interior confirms the rough course of the operation, but denies any responsibility of the „Uckermark“ . Since there was no immediate distress at sea, the situation was merely reported to the command. The „Uckermark“ was then relieved by the Greek coast guard and returned to port as ordered. In principle, the German forces would have acted within the framework of the Frontex operation „Poseidon“ and would thus have been subordinate to the Greek authorities. According to the Interior Ministry, there could be no question of participation in a pushback.
The repeated commitment to always follow the instructions of local authorities is already known from other statements by Frontex on dubious operations . One is too happy to let primarily the Greek authorities carry out the inhumane sealing-off practice at the European border. However, if one gets into the line of fire oneself, as in the case of the „Uckermark“, one can always point to the responsibilities of Greece as well as flimsy constraints. The undisguised gratitude that becomes apparent when Interior Minister Horst Seehofer declares that Greece is defending „Europe’s integrity“ at its external border is therefore hardly surprising.
Moreover, this is not the first time that the question of how much Germany is involved in illegal pushbacks in the Aegean has been raised. The „Uckermark“ itself was already involved in an incident in May 2020, in which it actively helped intercept a boat carrying refugees off Samos, thus denying people their right to asylum. Not to mention the „A1411 Berlin“ of the German Navy, which operates under NATO command and has been present as an eyewitness several times, during brutal and illegal pushbacks.
A question to the Bundestag by Green Party MP Luise Amtsberg on whether the federal government had any knowledge of pushbacks in the Aegean, revealed that this could not be disclosed because it could have „detrimental effects on NATO activities [and] the bilateral relations of Germany and Greece“ . Andrej Hunko (Die LINKE parliamentary group), Member of the German Bundestag, had also recently submitted a question on whether German navy ships under NATO or Frontex operations had observed pushbacks. The Federal Ministry of Defense admitted having observed a case on 19 June 2020. A case of which we knew nothing until then.
The German government excels in dealing with blatant human rights violations through striking passivity .
The notorious looking away and feigned ignorance have become a habit. The strategy is well known, both by German units like the „Uckermark“ or the „A1411 Berlin“ and by Frontex. Now, at the latest, it should become clear: Pushbacks are human rights crimes, not only organized primarily by Greek authorities, but a common European strategy that is as common as it is inhumane.
At the hearing in the Interior Committee, Frontext head Leggeri praised himself for his good clarification work in the context of the various incidents. For each incident, he said, a separate commission had been set up, which then compiled its findings as part of the Frontex Management Board working group, of which Germany is also a member.
In view of the overwhelming evidence, an independent investigation and reappraisal of the German involvement in pushbacks is urgently needed! The inhumane practice of pushbacks as well as Europe’s deadly isolationist policy behind it must come to an end!