Following the recent controversy over Syrians returned from Greece to Turkey, journalist Apostolis Fotiadis examines why it is so hard to hold the European agency Frontex to account for violations of refugees’ rights.
» Last month, 10, Syrians boarded a flight organized and staffed by the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, on the Greek island of Kos, believing their destination was Athens. Instead, they landed in the Turkish city of Adana.
The Syrians had wanted to seek international protection in Greece, and carried documents indicating their intention to initiate asylum procedures. They were never given deportation orders or offered an opportunity to mount a legal challenge to their deportation.
Their return to Turkey has become a point of acute controversy between the Greek government and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. Amnesty International has denounced the incident as refoulement, the illegal return of refugees to a country where they could face persecution.
In recent months Greece has been under severe pressure from its E.U. partners to expedite returns under the deal reached with Turkey in March. Frontex, with a mandate to enhance external border controls throughout Europe, has helped facilitate returns under the agreement.
When questioned about its responsibility for the Oct. 20 flight, its executive director, Fabrice Leggeri, told Refugees Deeply: “The agency is not competent to decide who shall be returned. This is a national competence.”
(…) Two weeks later, the European Commission incorporated a new complaint mechanism into a regulation reforming Frontex, now called the European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG). The reformed agency, operational since Oct. 6, has an expanded mandate, providing it with more executive power over border control, reception and return operations. The EBCG will run its own dedicated pool of equipment and seconded border officers, is able to initiate operations when E.U. members states fail to provide adequate border control and can also conduct operations beyond European borders.
The new complaint mechanism has not been as ambitious as the rest of the agency’s scope. Complaints can be submitted by an individual or their legal representative. They will be reviewed for admissibility by a “fundamental rights officer” employed by the EBCG, and admissible complaints are sent to the executive director of the EBCG regarding Frontex staff, or to an E.U. member state when their forces are the subject of complaint.
A group of 13 MEPs questioned the independence of this mechanism, noting that it is subject to the control of EBCG officials “for whose decisions there is no guarantee of impartiality and transparency,” in a written query to the European Commission in February. The European migration and home affairs commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, took five months to respond, by which time negotiations over Frontex reform had already concluded.
“The complaint mechanism is a very important step,” Keller says. “But like all the other safeguards in the Frontex mandate, it doesn’t compare at all to the enlarged tasks and powers of Frontex.”
Keller believes the complaint mechanism will not substantially alter the agency’s response to allegations of wrongdoing. “Frontex has a habit of evading responsibility by throwing it to member states. Member states have the habit of throwing it to the commission. In the end, no one wants to be responsible.” » (…)
@photo : AP/Lefteris Pitarakis. Merikarhu, a Finnish border guard vessel that is part of the E.U.’s Frontex forces deployment, patrols the Aegean Sea on Feb. 29, 2016. ibidem