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German link to Frontex patrols under scrutiny

November 28, 2020

A German politician wants federal police withdrawn from Aegean maritime patrols if EU border agency Frontex fails to halt migrant "pushbacks." Six forced returns since April have been attributed to the Greek coast guard.

A boat full of refugees from Turkey is turned way by local people at the port of Thermi, on the island of Lesvos, Greece
Image: Imago Images/Xinhua/M. Lolos

Frank Schwabe, the human rights spokesman for Germany's center-left Social Democrats (SPD), has said German federal police assigned to EU Frontex patrols should be withdrawn if implicated in so-called migrant "pushbacks."

The demand follows revelations that since April, six migrant boats have been forced by Greek coast guard ships to return to Turkey, with allegations of risky maneuvers and outboard motors being damaged in an attempt to illegally block access to asylum.

Read more: Greek migration minister: 'We are protecting our borders in line with international law'

"Germans must on no account be involved in pushbacks, not even indirectly," Schwabe told newsmagazine Der Spiegel and ARD public television's investigative Mainz Report on Saturday.

If Frontex, the EU's external border agency, did not stop the involvement of German federal police units in such pushbacks, then "the German contingent must be withdrawn," insisted Schwabe.

Involvement in pushbacks at sea could even leave German police open to charges of complicity in offenses, international law expert Nora Markard told Der Spiegel.

Blocked inflatable, didn't rescue

Citing an internal Frontex letter to the European Commission on Saturday, the magazine said federal police on board the German patrol boat BP62 reached an overloaded inflatable boat inside Greek waters on the morning of August 10. 

Instead of immediately rescuing some 40 persons on board, the patrol boat blocked the occupants' route to the adjacent Greek island of Samos and waited half an hour until the Greek coast guard "took over" the incident.

A photo taken two hours later showed Turkish coast guard ships rescuing the 40 occupants, suggesting their Greek counterparts had towed their inflatable back into Turkish waters.

Der Spiegel said that Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri, in an internal report to Brussels, had written that the migrant boat turned back to Turkey upon the arrival of the Greek coast guard, which later documented the occurrence as an "obstructed entry."

German police assigned to Frontex did not even file a "serious incident report," claimed the magazine.

Read more: French police use tear gas to dismantle Paris migrant camp

Frontex carrying out 'illegal pushbacks'

"Frontex must in the meantime assume that the Greek coast guard is carrying out illegal pushbacks," said Constantin Hruschka of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy based in Munich. "In such a case, Frontex must ensure that this does not happen and that the refugees are given access to an asylum procedure."

EU migrant crisis

Last week, the 47-nation human rights body the Council of Europe (CoE) slammed what it called "credible" allegations that Greece had carried out pushbacks across its border with Turkey, including forcing migrants on land to re-cross the Evros River.

In a report compiled by its anti-torture committee , the CoE raised concerns "over acts by the Greek Coast Guard to prevent boats carrying migrants from reaching any Greek island," questioning the "role and engagement" of FRONTEX in such operations."

Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas, replying to multiple CoE accusations, said that detention camp conditions had "significantly improved recently" and noted that fewer migrants were arriving.

Greece experienced a 90% drop in arrivals from May to October 2020, compared to the same period last year, the Greek Migration Ministry said last week. 

Read more: EU sees sharp drop in migrants illegally entering via Turkey

Arriving during those months in 2020 had been 4,345 people, compared to 44,348 from May to October in 2019.

Earlier this month, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said Greece's widely condemned practice of detaining unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, often in squalid conditions, would be discontinued.

ipj/mm (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, KN)