Frontex, Europe’s border security agency, faces questions over its complicity in violating the EU law.
OLAF, the European anti-corruption watchdog, has launched an investigation into the Schengen-area border security agency Frontex over allegations of harassment and migrant pushbacks.
The move comes after EU lawmakers and activists raised concern that Frontex officers have been complicit in forcibly stopping and pushing back asylum seekers across the land and sea borders of EU member states.
Thousands of desperate refugees have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to land in Europe. Now reports have emerged that European coast guards are pushing back on rickety boats full of refugees, exposing them to dangers of the sea.
“Obviously the OLAF investigation is very significant. But the issue has been around for a few years now. There have been ongoing human rights violations in the Mideterranean with Frontex being complicit since 2012-13,” said Tara Ansari, a specialist in European asylum law.
The investigation follows a lot of public pressure and efforts by NGOs and watchdogs, she told TRT World.
A joint investigation released by Lighthouse Reports, Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, ARD and TV Asahi in October said a migrant boat had to retreat when a Frontex ship came dangerously close and created waves.
Frontex is made up of police and military officers contributed by EU countries. But unlike the border security of an individual country, it is an EU agency, which has seen a gradual increase in its funding.
Manning the borders is primarily the responsibility of individual states but Frontex was given a bigger mandate after the refugee influx to Greece shot up in 2015-16, said Ansari.
“But there are cases where the Frontex was the first to see people in distress in the sea and instead of rescuing them, it contacted Libyan coast guard to take back the refugees.”
EU law allows asylum seekers entry into the region.
“Once someone enters a country’s territorial waters, not even the land, that state is responsible for the people there,” said Ansari. The EU governments then have to assess the case of asylum seekers.
In some instances, border security forced refugees who had already crossed the border or were rescued by a coast guard ship to get back on overcrowded dinghy boats, which very often capsize before reaching their destination.
“By denying people entry, states like Greece and Malta are not assessing the peoples’ asylum claims. If they send them back they are violating international law.”
And it's not just the sea where the violations have occurred. A human rights group this week accused Frontex of “turning a blind eye” when Hungarian border guards pushed at least 17 people across the border into Serbia in breach of EU law.
At the borders and at sea, pinpointing responsibility for the illegal pushbacks becomes difficult for researchers and investigators because of the involvement of various agencies.
“There are so many actors involved in border control these days. There’s the coast guard, there’s the police, the navy and then there’s Frontex,” said Ansari.
“Another major issue is that the people behind pushbacks often cover their faces and uniforms.”
While an internal investigation is a step in the right direction, Ansari said, she wasn’t hopeful that it could change the way in which asylum seekers are treated.
There are rulings of the European Court of Human Rights against EU countries for violating refugee rights.
“When member states have not been held responsible then it leads to the question how will they hold a more powerful EU agency accountable,” she said.