EU border forces “involved” in illegal campaign to prevent the landing of refugees

The EU’s border agency has been accused of complicity in illegal and often dangerous pushbacks aimed at preventing asylum seekers crossing the Aegean Sea.

Even as evidence of an aggressive maritime campaign by Greece has emerged, Frontex has denied knowledge of, or involvement in, pushbacks. But new evidence, including video footage showing a Frontex ship manoeuvring dangerously near a crowded dinghy full of people and creating waves that drove them back, appears to contradict the EU agency.

The evidence has emerged from a joint investigation by Lighthouse Reports, Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, ARD and TV Asahi based on open source video and images, testimonies and internal documents. The findings appear to demonstrate a degree of complicity, ranging from direct participation by Frontex vessels to failure to rescue people from boats in distress and a systematic failure of the agency’s internal system for reporting human rights violations.

Investigators documented six instances where the agency was either directly involved in a pushback in the Aegean or in close proximity to one.

Any further extent of Frontex’s alleged involvement is unclear as its air and sea units routinely switch off the transponders that report their positions to publicly available trackers.

Frontex has deployed about 600 European border guards to the Aegean with ships, drones, planes and thermal vision vehicles. But the agency said it has only witnessed one pushback incident of the dozens documented by humanitarian groups and media since tensions spiked between Greece and Turkey in March this year.

The insistence that Frontex’s large and sophisticated surveillance force has not witnessed a campaign that has included attacks by masked men on dinghies carrying women and children and dangerous wave-making manoeuvres by large vessels that leave radar signatures is questionable. During a recent visit by MEPs to the Greek island of Lesbos, one Greek MEP asked if Frontex officers were “enjoying their holidays in the Aegean”.

In a statement, Frontex restated its support for Greece in the spirit of EU solidarity and its commitment to preventing refoulement, or illegal pushbacks, of people seeking international protection: “Our operational officers are bound by the code of conduct that Frontex developed after consultation with our consultative forum. This code of conduct includes a paragraph specifically related to the prevention of refoulement and the upholding of human rights, all in line with the European charter of fundamental rights.”

It continued: “Frontex shares any concerns related to its operations as part of an operational dialogue with the relevant host state, which has the final say in how the operations on its territory or in its search and rescue zone are conducted.

“Frontex executive director has notified the Hellenic coastguard regarding all reported incidents. Greek authorities confirmed that an internal inquiry had been launched and Frontex is not in a position to comment on such.”

The Greek ministry for citizen protection and its maritime ministry also denied allegations of pushbacks.

On a Greek national holiday in August, beachgoers in Lesbos reported watching a pushback incident when a boat of asylum seekers was the centre of a standoff between Greek and Turkish coastguards. Two witnesses, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Guardian they observed a Frontex vessel and the Nato ship the Berlin close by.

“There were many people there,” they said. “It was a beautiful day to be on the beach. Many people witnessed this incident.” They described how waves were used to push dinghies back into Turkish waters. “I know very well about the sea and I can confirm that it’s very dangerous these things that are happening, and they are creating these waves and these dinghies with so many people. It’s very easy to make people to change position and create a big danger for the boat to capsize.”

Ali, 22, from Syria, was in the dinghy trying to reach Lesbos that day. His intention was to ask for asylum, as is his right under international law. He told the investigation of “10 hours of suffering”. “They told us to go back to Turkey, we told them that we want to go to Mytilene [the capital of Lesbos]. We have kids with us. We begged them a lot.

“They didn’t care and kept telling us to [go] back to Turkey. During all of that, water was leaking into the boat, we were trying to empty it back out.”

His boat was eventually pushed back and then rescued by the Turkish coastguard.

Two Frontex sources who spoke to the investigation said that the agency works in a “spirit of camaraderie” with Greek authorities and would “rarely if ever” expose any wrongdoing they observed. Words such as “deportations” and “returns” would be used in debriefings instead of “pushbacks”.

These sources said that transcripts of Frontex debriefings of asylum seekers are checked by local security forces and at the Athens headquarters. According to them, this means that any compromising material is unlikely to reach Frontex HQ in Warsaw.

In another incident, a Frontex vessel was directly involved in a pushback of 47 asylum seekers on 8 June, off the north-east coast of Lesbos. Using visual evidence and tracking the data of the vessel, the investigative team were able to reconstruct the incident, which showed how the Romanian Frontex vessel MAI 1103 created the waves. The Greek coastguard then approached the migrants’ dinghy and pushed it into Turkish waters.

During this incident the Nortada, a Portuguese Frontex vessel, was within visual range. Portuguese Frontex vessels were also shown to be in proximity to pushbacks on 4 June and 19 August.

On 28 April, 22 asylum seekers who reached the island of Samos were placed on a liferaft, towed out to sea and set adrift by the Greek coastguard. At this time a private surveillance plane working for Frontex twice passed over the area. This plane would normally be equipped with a camera with low-light and infrared sensors, designed to pick up small craft.

“This report shows in a larger and starker degree than previously known the deep involvement of Frontex in the most egregious violations of refugee law that we have seen in Europe, basically, ever,” said Itamar Mann, associate law professor at the University of Haifa, who added that it was now down to the European public and politicians to push for accountability.

“Frontex as an organisation is gradually embracing more and more the harsh reality of violations that have regretfully become systematic. The sources exposed by this report show a level of toleration by Frontex officials, which unquestionably amounts to complicity.”