Frontex seeks answers from Greece on alleged ‘pushbacks’ of migrants
The European Union’s border agency is seeking “clarifications and information” from Greece’s coast guard on two alleged cases of migrants who crossed by boat being illegally deported back to Turkey, a European official said Friday.
The official said Frontex’s executive director Hans Leijtens wrote to a senior police official representing Greece on the Frontex management board, requesting a reply by July 10. The agency helps patrol EU member Greece’s eastern borders.
Greece’s center-right government has in recent years stepped up patrols in the eastern Aegean Sea, radically reducing the numbers of migrants from the Middle East and Africa crossing in small boats from neighboring Turkey.
But Athens has been repeatedly accused of dumping migrants who enter Greek waters back inside Turkey’s maritime jurisdiction without allowing them to apply for asylum – an illegal practice known as “pushbacks.” There have been similar claims on Greece’s treatment of migrants crossing the land border with Turkey.
Greece denies the accusations, saying its migration policy is “strict but fair.”
Separately, Greece’s coast guard has been strongly criticized for its handling of the June 14 sinking of a trawler carrying hundreds of migrants from Libya to Italy, which left more than 500 people feared dead.
The letter dated Thursday referred to two alleged incidents on April 11 and 22 off the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos – a major destination for migrants crossing from the nearby Turkish coast in small boats.
The first was reported by The New York Times, based on a video provided by an activist. It claimed Greek authorities illegally deported a group of migrants who had reached Lesbos, leaving them on a life raft at sea for Turkish authorities to pick up. In the second, it was alleged that a Portuguese Frontex boat helping patrol the region stopped a boat carrying migrants and handed it over to the Greek coast guard, which forced it back into Turkish waters.
“I am aware that there might be investigations in progress with regard to the events mentioned above,” it said. “However, I would like to emphasize that it is of paramount importance for (Frontex) to receive all clarifications and information that are at this moment at the disposal of the (Greek) Coast Guard in view of current and future cooperation” between Greek authorities and Frontex.
The letter was first reported by Spain’s El Pais newspaper.
Leijtens also asked for Greece to release image and video recordings from the coast guard vessel involved in the alleged April 11 incident. The New York Times report said migrants were brought by van to a Lesbos beach and taken by speedboat to a coast guard vessel which allegedly left them adrift on a life raft.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, re-elected for a second four-year term on June 25, has said he takes the alleged April 11 incident “very seriously” and has ordered an investigation.
Questioned on reports Frontex might potentially consider suspending its deployment to Greece, Mitsotakis said Friday: “Any issues can always be solved in good faith, (but) the issue that you mentioned has not come to my attention at all.”
Speaking at a press conference in Brussels after a two-day EU summit that focused on migration, he added that his government had enjoyed a “steadily good cooperation” with the agency.
“I think that with Frontex we have a common mission: to protect our external borders, and of course to always save people who may be in danger at sea,” he said.