A series of leaks directly implicate FRONTEX and multiple EU member states in taking part in pushbacks in the Aegean Sea in support with the Greek Coast Guard.

In a disturbing new low in the incessant inhumane treatment of refugees by the European Union and its member states, Greek authorities in Samos have arrested a 25-year-old Afghan asylum seeker, Nadir Ayoubi, for the tragic death of his 6-year-old son, Yahya, who died crossing the Aegean, following their departure from the Turkish coast. 

Although the Greek Government has admitted it is unclear what happened and how the child died, Ayoubi is being charged with "child endangerment resulting in death". The reality is that for people like Nadir and Yahya, and millions of other refugees, there is no safe passage to Europe and risking their lives on this dangerous journey is their only choice. 

The charges are obviously condemnable, but they are also just a small part of the EU’s ongoing “deterrence measures”. However, it is more accurate to call them “torture measures”, which have been normalised through EU refugee policy and linguistic gymnastics. 

While Ayoubi awaits trial, it is the EU, its member states and the EU’s border patrol agency FRONTEX who are accused of breaking international law. This past week Frontex was forced to release documents proving the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) in Greece received orders to push migrants back into Turkish territorial waters in a violation of international law.

In October, Spiegel, Lighthouse reports, Bellingcat, TV Asia, and Report Mainz released that FRONTEX had been close to and most likely complicity in at least six pushbacks committed by the Greek Coast Guard. 

Over the past few weeks, major leaks of FRONTEX documents have directly implicated the agency and multiple EU member states in taking part in pushbacks in the Aegean Sea in support with the Greek Coast Guard. These releases are yet just another in a long series of human rights abuses committed against refugees. 

On November 18, through a freedom of information request from the EUobserver, it was officially proven through an email chain from FRONTEX how the Greek authorities had directly been ordering pushbacks. 

FRONTEX chief Fabrice Leggeri countered this release by saying it was a “misunderstanding”, but less than a week after the EUobserver releases, the ongoing investigations by Spiegel released a minute by minute account of a pushback by Greek Coast Guard recorded by FRONTEX itself. 

FRONTEX’s Serious Incident Report Number 11095 accounts how a FRONTEX Reconnaissance plane observed that on April 18-19, the Greek Coast Guard transferred 30 refugees on their boat, then forced them onto a motorless dinghy and dragged them across to Turkish waters. Hence, FRONTEX chief Leggeri was fully aware of this event through his employees reporting the incident, yet still denies any knowledge of illegal pushbacks.

Less than 2 days later, releases by Spiegel prove the complicity of the German federal police officers in at least one push back. In an internal note from FRONTEX Chief Leggeri to the EU Commission it is recorded in detail how on August 10, German police officers stopped a dinghy with 40 people but instead of saving them, waited from the Greek coast guard to arrive who then violently pushed them back into Turkish waters. 

The FRONTEX document, which was released after a freedom of information request from EUobserver, contradicts the claims from Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri and Greek authorities but is just yet another in a long series of abuses that refugees, aid workers and Human Rights organizations have condemned repeatedly.

Redacted Frontex email showing the order was given (EUobserver)
Redacted Frontex email showing the order was given (EUobserver) (EUobserver)

The email, dated March 6 2020, reveals the Danish coast guard refused orders to force migrants and asylum seekers on a small boat near the Greek island coastline back to Turkey.

Illegal and Dangerous Pushbacks

Although Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri has repeatedly dismissed this specific incident as a misunderstanding and claimed to the European Parliament that it was an isolated incident, the EUObserver leaks have proven that the Greek government has actively ordered these pushbacks.

Independent investigative organisations like Aegean Boat Report, Josoor, and Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) have been documenting illegal pushbacks as a systematic practice by Greek Authorities throughout 2020. 

Pushbacks are not a new practice by Greece, but since Spring 2020 authorities have shown such excessive and remorseless use of force that it should not go unnoticed. Just in the month of November, Aegean Sea Report documented 28 illegal pushbacks which resulted in 606 children, women, and men having their basic right to asylum denied by Greek authorities after being brutally sent back to Turkey. 

To provide a visual of these pushbacks; in most of these cases, asylum seekers had already arrived on the Greek islands and were forced onto vessels of the Hellenic coast guard then transferred onto tent-shaped rafts where they were pushed out to helplessly drift in the sea. No regard is taken as to whether the asylum seekers live or die at sea. 

Not only are these pushbacks happening with the UNHCR and EU as bystanders, but the Greek government goes as far as sending masked men to conduct pushback operations to deflect responsibility away from its own authorities. Analytical reports by BVMN and Bellingcat show masked men on boats of the Hellenic Coast guard actively directing these pushbacks while innocent children scream and cry for help. 

The practice of pushbacks is not just a blatant violation of international law, but violate key principles of European Asylum Law as described by WeMove Europe and Oxfam International in their official complaint to the European Commission concerning infringements of EU Law by Greece. There has been an outcry from refugees, whose lives are used as political bargaining chips, and NGOs working in the midst of this humanitarian disaster caused by the inadequacy of European asylum policies. 

Yet, still, there is a staggering silence followed by empty promises from the EU and politicians in EU member states. 

Pushbacks are only one of the many forms of deterrence measures used by Greek authorities to prevent refugees from seeking asylum in Europe. Greek authorities with direct authorisation and support of the EU have been systematically cracking down on the rights of refugees, with the aim of limiting the number of new arrivals in EU borders. This ranges from unpredictable practices of detention upon arrival and closed camps to building a wall to physically prevent refugees from crossing into EU territory from Turkey. 

The Greek government announced on October 19 its plan to extend and strengthen the existing fence near the Evros river, a key crossover point for refugees, into a formal wall. The wall will be 26 kilometres long and 5 meters high, built out of steel tubes with a strong concrete foundation. The project will cost Greece $76 million and is expected to be finished by April 2021.

There has still been no condemnation or reaction from the EU or European politicians, despite the naked progress of Greek ambitions. 

Simultaneously, Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, in April announced the EU would dedicate 280 million euros ($340 million) to support Greece in building ‘multi-purpose reception and identification centres’, which the Greek government published in 2019 would be closed reception centres (closed camps). This means that the EU is not only remaining silent in the midst of Greece’s draconian measures, but it is funding the deprivation of refugees' basic human rights.  

While Pushback operations have become a norm among Greece’s arsenal of deterrence measures, Nadir grieves the loss of the child he tried to save and potentially faces up to 10 years in prison. However the responsibility for Yahya Ayoubi’s death, like Alan Kurdi before him - remains at the hands of EU politicians from various member states along with FRONTEX who methodically planned and executed grave injustices against refugees as a “policy of deterrence”. These actions amount to crimes against humanity - while the perpetrators remain entirely unaccountable, sitting at the highest positions of power in Europe.

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