The European Commission said Tuesday it expects answers this month from the Frontex border agency after allegations that migrants crossing from Turkey toward Greece were pushed back.
At an extraordinary meeting of the guard agency's management board on Tuesday, executive director Fabrice Leggeri vowed to improve human rights reporting standards.
The EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, described this in a tweet as "a good start to what I want to be a transparent process."
But she added that Brussels has asked "the Frontex executive director to reply to questions ahead of the next scheduled board meeting (end November)."
Several media reports, including from the German weekly Der Spiegel, have uncovered evidence of Frontex guards working with Greek authorities to push migrants back into Turkish waters.
Migrant rights agencies have warned that the arrivals, many of them refugees from conflict, have a right to claim asylum and are put in danger by aggressive tactics from border guards.
The reports have embarrassed the European Commission, whose President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to see the refugee crisis on the ground in March and hailed Greece as "Europe's shield."
Leggeri, a former senior French official, told Tuesday's meeting that the agency should set up an evaluation committee to monitor compliance with regulations.
"Any allegation of misconduct or infringement of international treaties or fundamental rights in the framework of joint operations coordinated by Frontex is treated with grave concern and carefully investigated," he said.
"I am committed to reinforce the office of the fundamental rights officer and to gradually increase its budget."
Last month, nearly 30 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) called on Greece to open an "urgent inquiry" into allegations that it was systematically pushing migrants back toward Turkey.
Numerous reports by journalists, researchers and witnesses have cataloged the way in which migrants and asylum-seekers have been forced back across the border to Turkey or left stranded in the Aegean Sea without aid by Greek coast guards, despite the conservative government's denials in Athens.
Pushbacks are considered contrary to international refugee protection agreements. Under the principle of “non-refoulement,” 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 being members of a social or political group.
Der Spiegel documented at least six incidents where Frontex units were involved in pushbacks near the islands of Lesbos and Samos between April 28 and Aug. 19.
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.
Turkey and Greece have been key transit points for migrants aiming to cross into Europe, fleeing war and persecution to start new lives.
Turkey, which hosts nearly 5 million migrants, 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 Turkish coast guard said it rescued over 300 migrants “pushed back by Greek elements to Turkish waters” in September alone. Citing what they say are credible reports, international rights groups have repeatedly called for an investigation.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Greece of summarily returning migrants across Turkish land and sea borders, citing interviews with asylum-seekers.
Other rights groups and refugee organizations, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), have repeatedly called on Greece to investigate what they say are credible reports and testimony of expulsions.
“The UNHCR is particularly concerned about the increasing reports, since March 2020, of alleged informal returns by sea of persons who, according to their own attestations or those of third persons, have disembarked on Greek shores and have thereafter been towed back to sea,” the agency said in August.
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