Rights groups take legal action against EU border and coast guard agency

Three organizations initiated legal action Tuesday against the European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG) Agency, or Frontex, at the European Court of Justice for violations of EU and international law.

Frontex is responsible for coordinating border control between EU member States and other countries in the Schengen Area. The three organizations—Progress Lawyers Network, Front-Lex and Greek Helsinki Monitor—that seek to “reinstate the Rule of Law over EU borders,” said that the legal action marks the first time that the agency, which was founded in 2004, has been taken to the court for human rights violations.

The application states that Frontex violated provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, the EBCG Regulation, and international and European customary and treaty law by failing to “suspend or terminate its activities in the Aegean Sea Region (Greece)” in the face of violations of fundamental rights. It states that in March 2020, Greece introduced policy that included “the temporal suspension of the asylum system in the country,” introduction of collective expulsion operations and other “tactics,” and targeting of asylum seekers at its borders. Frontex’s failure, it states, to “prevent, monitor, report and investigate the said violations constitutes, per se, a failure to act [sic] in infringement of the Treaties,” and complicity in Greece’s alleged crimes against humanity of deportation, persecution and other inhumane acts.

EU member states are not legally allowed to turn away asylum seekers, a practice known as “pushback.” These measures can constitute violations of international refugee law and the European Convention on Human Rights. Greece denies the allegations against it and defends its policies. An October investigation by several international media outlets revealed that data suggested “Frontex assets were actively involved in one pushback incident at the Greek-Turkish maritime border in the Aegean Sea,” its personnel were present at another incident, and “have been in the vicinity of four more since March.” An internal inquiry, however, found no evidence of its involvement.

The organizations represent A.N., a Burundi national, and Jeancy Kimbenga, an unaccompanied 17-year-old Congo national. Both of them are currently residing in Turkey and have attempted to seek asylum in Greece several times after facing persecution in their home countries. In their attempts, they were allegedly expelled from Greece twice and thrice, respectively, in “violent and collective expulsion operations.” They “were violently rounded up, assaulted, robbed, abducted, detained, forcibly transferred back to sea, collectively expelled, and ultimately abandoned on rafts with no means of navigation, food or water.” The lawyers submitted that Kimbenga was in May 2020 part of a group of migrants whose belongings were confiscated by a Hellenic Coast Guard member shortly before reaching the coast of Lesbos, a Greek island. They were allegedly then taken to Turkish waters on the coast guard vessel, and abandoned there on two “life” rafts. Similar events of collective expulsion are alleged to have taken place in the applicants’ successive attempts.

Omer Shatz and Iftach Cohen from Front-Lex said:

We watched videos showing the worst crimes that humanity has imagined and outlawed. We watched the Director of Frontex, Leggeri, telling the EU Parliament and Commission that what we see in these videos is actually not happening. But 10,000 victims attest: these crimes are being committed, on a daily basis, on EU territory, by an EU agency. … We trust the Court to hear the victims, to see what everyone sees, to hold EU border agency to account, and to restore the Rule of Law over EU lands and seas.

The European Parliament has launched a probe, and the European Anti-Fraud Office is investigating mismanagement allegations against Frontex. Earlier this month the Council of Europe urged Greece to end pushbacks and launch a probe into the allegations.