The European Union’s coastal and border guard agency, Frontex, is complicit in an illegal campaign of pushbacks at sea in the Aegean. Greece has been shown to be undertaking a concerted operation to reduce the number of land and sea arrivals of asylum seekers, as well as remove some of those who have arrived and sought international protection. Frontex has repeatedly denied involvement.
An investigation by Lighthouse Reports, Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, ARD and Asahi TV now reveals the full extent of the role of Frontex in maritime pushbacks. Despite repeated denials by the EU agency of involvement in, or knowledge of, multiple pushbacks, our research shows a pattern of Frontex proximity to and participation in pushbacks. The evidence is based on open-source information, leaked documents, audiovisual material including video footage, photos as well as interviews with migrants and Frontex staff.
It also reveals, through confidential sources, how internal reports on these illegal activities are censored. Frontex’s internal warning system, or Serious Incident Report (SIR), has officially recorded only one case of asylum seekers being pushed back from Greek to Turkish waters (see footnote).
Our key findings dispute this assertion and demonstrate a degree of complicity, ranging from direct participation to failure to intervene, in the broader pushback campaign.
The pushback campaign organised by Greece has been denounced by MEPs, human rights groups and international law experts. Frontex is “complicit and violating international laws” when it fails to intervene to prevent pushbacks, says international law expert, Dana Schmalz. Frontex is obliged to rescue asylum seekers whenever they see a dinghy in distress.
Frontex vessel directly participates in pushbacks. On June 8th a pushback took place off the Northeast coast of Lesbos island. The Turkish coast guard picked up 47 asylum seekers. Using videos and tracking data of vessel transponders we reconstructed the incident. Visual evidence shows that a dinghy with 47 migrants was intercepted and physically blocked by the Romanian Frontex vessel MAI1103. The Frontex vessel created waves by manoeuvering dangerously to push back the dinghy. Minutes later the Greek Coast Guard approached the migrants and pushed them towards the Turkish maritime border. While this was going on a Portuguese Frontex vessel, the Nortada, came within 5km (visual range) of the incident.
Frontex vessels are repeatedly in visual range of pushback incidents. On August 15, near Lesbos, the Romanian Frontex vessel MAI1102, was within visual range to witness a standoff between the Greek and Turkish coast guards. The Greek coastguards then pushed a boat-load of asylum seekers back across the maritime border to Turkey. Frontex did not intervene nor apparently record the illegal incident in their internal reporting system.
Frontex aerial assets pretend not to witness clear pushback incidents. On April 28 a group of 22 asylum seekers who landed on the island Samos were detained, placed on a life raft without any means of propulsion, and then towed out to sea and set adrift by the Greek coast guard. As the life raft was floating in the Aegean, a private surveillance plane working for Frontex, passed over the area twice. The plane is reportedly equipped with an ISR camera, which has both low-light and infrared sensors. It is not credible to assert that this surveillance aircraft would not have been able to identify the life raft which it overflew more than once at low altitude. The migrants were later rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard.
The same Frontex vessels are repeatedly proximate to illegal acts. On June 4 two dinghies were pushed back from Northern Lesbos. The Portuguese Frontex vessel Nortada was present around 15km from the first incident and just over 1km from the second — within visual range. A day later a dinghy was reported to have been pushed back from Northern Lesbos. Portuguese vessel Nortada was approximately 2km away. On August 19 both the Nortada and another Portuguese vessel, the Molivos, were within a range of 5km. Apparently no reports of incidents were made by Frontex crews.
EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas has said he has no information on pushbacks because Frontex has not recorded any. Two Frontex sources told us that the agency works in a “spirit of camaraderie” with local (Greek) authorities. Frontex officials in Greece will “rarely if ever” expose wrongdoing they observe. Transcripts from Frontex debriefings of newly-arrived asylum seekers do not mention pushbacks even when interviewees use the word to refer to incidents they have been victims of or have witnessed. This is an “implicit understanding” that officials will self censor. Synonyms or euphemisms are used in place of pushbacks, such as “returns” or “deportations”, even though those terms would imply due process. Even these sanitized transcripts are filtered two more times before being sent to HQ in Warsaw. Once by the local security police, e.g. in Lesbos, and then by Greek police HQ in Athens. By the time they reach Warsaw any controversial material will have been removed. Even if the source has been evaluated as “credible” by debriefers.
Pushback operations create a clear “radar signature” visible to all vessels in the wider area. A maritime expert confirmed to investigators that while the dinghies may not be visible on radar, the movements of larger vessels encircling them to create waves in order to push migrants back towards Turkey would have given a clear radar signature.