Three nongovernmental organizations (NGO) announced Tuesday that they have launched legal action against the European Union's border protection agency Frontex at the bloc’s top court for violating the rights of people trying to seek asylum and other breaches of international law, including migrant pushbacks from the EU border toward Turkish waters.
"An unprecedented legal action against Frontex was submitted to the EU Court of Justice today," the NGOs Front-Lex, Progress Lawyers Network and Greek Helsinki Monitor said in a joint statement.
The case was filed at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) by Front-Lex, a legal hub challenging EU migration policies. It concerns a woman from Burundi and a Congolese teenager who tried to apply for international protection on the Greek island of Lesbos last year.
The lawyers said it’s the first time that Frontex has been taken before the Luxembourg-based ECJ in its 17 years of operations and that they plan to hold the agency to account and “reinstate the rule of law over EU borders."
They claim that the two migrants “were violently rounded up, robbed, abducted, detained, forcibly transferred back to sea, collectively expelled and ultimately abandoned on rafts with no means of navigation, food or water.”
They said the two “were victims of other ‘push-back’ operations during the attempt to find protection in the EU.” Under EU and international refugee law, people fearing for their lives or fleeing persecution can apply for asylum and must not be pushed back, that is, sent back to where they may face further danger.
Frontex, which has repeatedly denied allegations of pushbacks and other claims of abuses, rejected the move as a masquerade.
“This is not really a legal case. It’s an activist agenda pretending to be a legal case, whose aim is to undermine the EU’s resolve to protect its borders,” Frontex spokesperson Chris Borowski said.
In their submission, the lawyers said the 15-year-old boy was among a group of migrants whose phones, bags and money were allegedly confiscated by masked members of the Greek coast guard in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece in May 2020. Migrants were loaded onto a rubber raft in Turkish waters.
The incidents were one of several involving the boy, according to the documents. Witness testimony, media reports and other evidence suggest that he and the woman allegedly suffered further abuses in late November. As of February, both remained in Turkey and still hoped to reach Greece to apply for asylum.
Frontex coordinates search and rescue and border interception operations on behalf of the 27 EU member countries. However, the country on whose territory the operation is happening – in this case, Greece – has command over what goes on.
"We trust the Court to hear the victims, to see what everyone sees, to hold EU border agency to account and to restore the Rule of Law over EU lands and seas," lawyers Omer Shatz and Iftach Cohen from Front-LEX said in a statement.
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 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.
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 this month urged Greece to end its practice of pushing irregular migrants back from its borders toward Turkey and launch a probe into the allegations.
In a letter to lawyers, seen by The Associated Press (AP), Leggeri rejected any claim of wrongdoing.
“I am confident that the Agency has undertaken its activities in strict compliance with the applicable legal framework, including fundamental rights obligations,” he wrote.
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