The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) is a disgrace for Europe, Turkey's interior minister said Wednesday while also criticizing European authorities' inactivity against the agency's involvement in the mistreatment of migrants and pushbacks.
Speaking on an annual evaluation meeting on the issue of migration in western Balıkesir province's Ayvalık district, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said that the West's attitude toward the migrant crisis is a shame for humanity.
"Of course, irregular migration is a crime, but people who resort to this method do not lose their rights of being a human. Stripping the captured illegal migrants naked, tying their hands with plastic handcuffs and throwing them to die in the freezing waters of the Aegean Sea in the middle of winter without their boots, there is nothing compatible with either law, humanity or any other value. It is not possible to understand the silence of the international community on these actions," he said.
Regarding Frontex's role in the mistreatment and pushback of migrants from Greece toward Turkey in the Aegean Sea, Soylu said: "Europe, unfortunately, formed a joint agency for their own borders, called Frontex. But, it actually formed an inhumane agency. The Frontex agency is a disgrace for Europe and has human blood on its hands. Europe still waits for an opportunity to protect and defend this agency ... We want to warn Europe one more time here. This Frontex agency is another black mark on your history of exploitative behavior. If you do not take a step quickly, close this organization and reveal the flaws of this organization before the history and the judiciary, you will have achieved the success of adding a new black mark on your civilization altogether. Well, maybe that's what suits it."
Soylu also criticized Turkey's western neighbor and EU member Greece's inhumane treatment of irregular migrants trying to cross the border. Stating that both Europe and the rest of the world witness and see Greece's inhumane treatment and practices, the minister accused them of remaining silent and indifferent due to their double standards and hypocrisy.
In recent years, 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 accused Greece of large-scale pushbacks and summary deportations without access to asylum procedures, which is a violation of international law. It has also accused the EU of turning a blind eye to what it says is a blatant abuse of human rights.
Pushbacks are considered contrary to international refugee protection agreements that say people shouldn't 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. Such actions prevent asylum-seekers from making claims for refugee status and if practiced indiscriminately against a group of migrants it can constitute refoulement – a violation of EU human rights laws and the 1951 Geneva Convention.
Earlier this year, the managing board of Frontex said it did not find evidence of rights violations in cases it reviewed where guards were accused of illegal migrant pushbacks from Greece toward Turkish territorial waters. But the body added that its conclusions only applied to some of the disputed incidents, saying it needs additional clarifications to complete the remaining reviews.
Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri has been under pressure for months over the allegations as Frontex takes on a greater front-line role in patrolling EU borders. EU lawmakers and activists have called for him to resign over the operations, but he has refused, insisting the agency is key to the fight against human trafficking. A working group of 14 members of the European Parliament was formed last month to investigate the EU border agency's involvement in pushbacks of asylum-seekers in Aegean waters.
A joint investigation by several international news outlets reported in October that Frontex had been complicit in maritime pushback operations to drive away migrants attempting to enter the EU via Greek waters. A month later, Brussels-based news outlet EUobserver revealed that Frontex exchanged letters with Greek authorities on Athens' orders to push back migrants to Turkish waters.
The pressure intensified after media and rights organizations documented multiple cases of Frontex border officers, alongside national counterparts in EU countries, forcing migrants back, particularly along Greece's sea border with Turkey. At least six incidents in which Frontex units were involved in pushbacks near the islands of Lesbos and Samos between April 28 and Aug. 19 have been documented.
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.
The Berlin-based rights group Mare Liberum also said in January it had documented 321 incidents from March to December 2020 involving more than 9,000 people. Mare Liberum's report said that in addition to the Greek coast guard, Frontex and ships under NATO command were also involved in "systematic and illegal expulsions."
In a statement issued last month, Turkey urged Athens and "all elements involved in pushbacks" to end their violations of international law, human rights agreements and a migration deal between the EU and Turkey.
Soylu also said that the West has clearly benefited from and fueled the conflict, instability and poverty in geographies of origin for the migration.
Underlining that the world has been witnessing a historical level of human mobility leading to a migration crisis since 2011, Soylu said that the origin of this migration crisis is not only Syria, also different regions including Africa, the Middle East and South America.
"On the one hand, there is migration mobility from Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia toward Turkey and Europe; at the same time, there is more migration mobility in the continent of South America. I need to underline that all of these constitute a test for humanity, and we hold our head high in this test," he said.
Regarding Turkey's efforts for a solution to the migrant crisis, Soylu highlighted the fact that Turkey is the country hosting the most migrants in the world and the only country that has been putting in sincere effort to establish stability in the region.
As Soylu said, there are 3,664,873 Syrian migrants living in Turkey under the status of temporary protection, and there are also 1,032,348 foreigners living in Turkey with a residence permit.
The minister also stated that the number of irregular migrants caught in Turkish borders reduced from 454,662 in 2019 to 122,302 in 2020 and 22,115 in nearly the first three months of this year.
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