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E.U. border agency verified 'credible' migrant pushbacks tied to deaths

Internal documents show the embattled Frontex linked Greece's forcible expulsions to 2022 migrant drownings.

A Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) lifeboat in the port of Katakolo in 2022.
A Greek Coast Guard lifeboat in the port of Katakolo in 2022. (AN/)

BRUSSELS (AN) – The European Union's border protection agency, Frontex, verified two incidents in 2022 where the Greek Coast Guard conducted illegal "pushbacks" of migrants in the Aegean Sea, directly leading to the drowning of at least four people, internal documents show.

The documents first made public by the EU Observer on Friday detail incidents in August and Sept. 2022 in which masked men working with or for the Greek Coast Guard forcibly expelled migrants from the islands of Chios and Samos, throwing them into Turkish waters without life vests or boats. Some were allegedly thrown into the sea while handcuffed.

The Fundamental Rights Office, Frontex's internal watchdog, said it is "credible and likely that 11 individuals were pushed back from Chios island to Turkish territorial waters in August 2022 and left at sea by the Hellenic Coast Guard which resulted in the drowning of three migrants."

It deemed a similar fatal pushback of seven migrants from Samos in September "credible and plausible."

The Greek Coast Guard personnel involved were participating in the largest operation that Frontex has ever conducted, known as Poseidon, which supports Greece with border surveillance and maritime rescue.

Greece has long denied doing pushbacks, despite evidence gathered by journalists, rights groups and Frontex's own personnel. Frontex reports note a "general denial of the allegations by Greek authorities," but describe a refusal of these same authorities to cooperate with investigations.

No members of Greece's Coast Guard or police have been disciplined for actions off its coast. Greek authorities prosecuted several humanitarian workers for participating in search and rescue efforts off its islands.

The reports found Greece breached rights protected under the E.U. Charter of Fundamental Rights, including the right to life and prohibitions against collective expulsion and inhuman or degrading treatment. Like many E.U. agencies, Frontex is self-policing without independent oversight.

Legal advocates continue to pursue cases against Frontex in E.U. courts. Front-Lex, a legal advocacy group, brought multiple cases to the Court of Justice of the European Union, seeking to halt Frontex's activities in Greece on human rights grounds. An appeal to suspend Frontex's activities in Greece over alleged involvement in migrant pushbacks is ongoing.

Frontex chief Hans Leijtens told German broadcaster ARD in an interview aired on Thursday that he asked Greek officials to stop the pushbacks. "I told them. But the thing is, preventing it, I cannot," Leijtens said. "Command and control is with the member state."

Leijtens left open the possibility of halting Frontex's joint operations with Greece, which would be unprecedented. "At the end, I might arrive at a conclusion that there's no longer a credible cooperation possible," he said. "I have not arrived at that point yet, but we have to assess this frequently."

Responding to video evidence from Jan. 2024 showing a boat with E.U. flags and a ship identified by ARD as a Frontex vessel present at a pushback of migrants off Greece's coast, Leijtens acknowledged some responsibility.

"We have a responsibility even if we are not a perpetrator, or the direct perpetrator ourselves, because, again, we are the European border and Coast Guard agency," he said. "We uphold the European values, we uphold the European law."

Mediterranean Sea Route
U.N. Migration

Past Frontex chief now a far right parliamentarian

Civil liberties watchdog Statewatch reported on Thursday it reviewed confidential documents from Frontex's Fundamental Rights Office, or FRO, saying Greece's expulsions were "coordinated, well-resourced, and seemingly conducted systematically, rather than isolated incidents."

The watchdog reported Frontex held internal talks about suspending its partnership with Greece; FRO advised doing so in June, citing a lack of change in practices. Frontex later referred to unspecified "indications of changing practices" in Greece to explain why no such action took place.

The embattled border agency is under pressure to end its involvement in illegal pushbacks that human rights groups say violate both E.U. and international law. Leijtens, who promised to crack down on the practice, was appointed last year after his predecessor, Fabrice Leggeri, was forced to resign amid a probe by the E.U. anti-fraud watchdog. The probe found Leggeri covered up evidence of illegal pushbacks by national coastguards.

Now a far right European parliamentarian, Leggeri told ARD he voted for Marine Le Pen's far right Rassemblement National party in 2022 while still in charge of Frontex, which is supposed to steer clear of political agendas.

He conceded that he "could of course not say so" then due to his position atop the agency; last week he joined parliament as a member of RN.

"Europeans don't want to disappear. They want to have their own culture," Leggeri said of RN's immigration stance, which reflects decades of hardline opposition to migrants and refugees dating back to the 1970s.

The latest disclosures add to a mounting body of evidence that the E.U.'s efforts to externalize its borders and block migration routes have cost lives.

A BBC analysis this week found 15 incidents involving the Greek Coast Guard between May 2020 and June 2023 that resulted in 43 migrant deaths. Greek authorities denied responsibility. Meanwhile, a recent joint investigation by The Washington Post, Lighthouse Reports and other news outlets revealed the E.U. and individual member states knowingly financed brutal "dumping" operations in North Africa to detain and expel tens of thousands of migrants into remote deserts each year.

Human rights groups and the United Nations documented frequent, coordinated actions between Frontex and the Libyan Coast Guard – a major beneficiary of E.U. funding – intended to stop migrants from reaching Europe. Frontex consistently denied any direct cooperation.

E.U. leaders are offering more development aid while seeking economic partnerships in Africa that curb migration at its source, a strategy advanced by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at last week's G-7 meeting. Critics argue it masks an often brutal anti-migration policy that costs lives and undermines the bloc's fundamental values.