The European Union border and coast guard agency, Frontex, has been turning a blind eye to human rights violations, the agency's former deputy head said.
Speaking to the British media outlet The Guardian in his first interview since leaving the office, Gil Arias Fernandez commented on the recent criticism over Frontex's role in the mistreatment of irregular migrants, including pushbacks from the EU border toward Turkish territorial waters in the Aegean Sea.
He said the current situation of the agency “pains” him and that it is vulnerable to the “alarming” rise of populism across the continent.
Expressing his deep concern about the agency’s damaged reputation, its decision to arm officers and its inability to stop the far-right from infiltrating its ranks amid anti-migrant movements across Europe, Fernandez said: “Weapons are not needed for Frontex operations. They are more of a problem than a help.”
“Frontex pains me. Especially for the staff, because they don’t deserve what they are going through. We saw the agency as an instrument to help the member states and the migrants. These events put a dent in all that effort. I do not believe that the agency has proactively violated the rights of migrants, but there are reasons to believe that it has turned a blind eye," he told The Guardian.
Frontex has come under heavy fire due to accusations of involvement or complicity in pushbacks, often in the Aegean Sea, but the agency denies the allegations. An internal probe this year found no evidence that Frontex was involved in pushback reports made public by a media consortium last October.
In early December, EU lawmakers lashed out at Frontex's executive director over allegations that the agency helped illegally stop migrants entering Europe and supported the Greek coast guard to push migrants back toward Turkish territorial waters in the Aegean Sea, calling for his resignation and demanding an independent inquiry.
The lawmakers grilled Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri over an investigation in October by several international media outlets, which said video and other publicly available data suggests 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." Frontex launched an internal probe after the news broke.
While the border agency is required to rescue migrants, the Frontex vessels patrolling the area sped past the overcrowded, inflatable boats, creating dangerous waves to force them to return to Turkish shores. A Frontex aircraft was also documented passing over migrants, who were seeking help at sea, but did not rescue them.
Pushbacks are considered contrary to international refugee protection agreements, which say people should not be expelled or returned to a country where their life and safety might be in danger due to their race, religion, nationality or membership in a social or political group.
Turkey and Greece have been key transit points for migrants aiming to cross into Europe, fleeing war and persecution to start new lives. Turkey has also accused Greece of large-scale pushbacks and summary deportations without access to asylum procedures, which is a violation of international law. It also accuses the EU of turning a blind eye to what it says is a blatant abuse of human rights.
The European Parliament has launched its own investigation and is expected to release its findings in the coming months. The EU’s anti-fraud agency has also been probing allegations of mismanagement at Frontex.
EU member states were involved in pushing back some 40,000 migrants and refugees into Turkish waters, resulting in the deaths of over 2,000 individuals during the pandemic, according to an investigation by The Guardian last month.
The report noted that EU countries and their border agency Frontex systematically pushed back irregular migrants, including children, “using illegal tactics ranging from assault to battery during detention or transportation.”
Following the news, the Council of Europe last month urged Greece to end its practice of pushing irregular migrants back from its borders toward Turkey and launched a probe into the allegations.