Greece should face more checks on treatment of asylum seekers, says EU official

Greek authorities are set to face more checks on how they handle asylum seekers trying to reach Europe, the top human rights official told the EU border agency. EU.

Jonas Grimheden, head of fundamental rights at the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex, was speaking in a rare interview following numerous allegations that asylum seekers were illegally expelled from Greece.

“It is clear to me that Greece is one of the countries that needs enhanced surveillance,” he told the Guardian. “I think what’s missing now from my side is to increase the pressure, to increase the concreteness of what I think needs to be done to prevent breaches.”

He was reluctant to go into detail, but suggested that Frontex “could be present in more places, involved in more activities” on Greece’s external border.

“On countries that do not comply with EU law, it would make more sense to have more Frontex rather than less,” he said, adding that the agency’s presence imposed “duties of clear statement” to the Member States.

While human rights groups, which have long reported suspected pushbacks by Greek authorities, should welcome the increased attention to the EU’s southeastern border, Frontex itself even was accused of complicity in human rights violations.

Grimheden, a former human rights lecturer, joined Frontex in June 2021 with the mission of ensuring that EU border management complies with international law and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

His start in the job coincided with dozens of NGOs and sea rescue captains launching a campaign to abolish Frontex, claiming the EU agency was carrying out a deadly border control policy against immigrants.

“Maybe it’s a logical reaction,” Grimheden said when asked about the campaign. “But I don’t think that’s the solution. On the contrary, I think Frontex is necessary.

Much of his tenure coincided with criticism of the Warsaw-based agency that culminated in April with the resignation of Frontex executive director Fabrice Leggeri.

Grimheden declined to comment on Leggeri’s track record and stressed his independence from the board.

The Swedish human rights expert, however, suggested the agency’s problems stemmed from past practices and were being addressed with the recruitment of dozens of human rights officers. These personnel, responsible for enforcing human rights, may work at the EU border or on the return flights of people who have been refused asylum in Europe.

The agency was reprimanded last year by the European Parliament for failing to recruit “at least” 40 fundamental rights officers as required by EU law.

As of July 1, the agency had 31 monitors and Grimheden hopes to have 46 in place by October 2022.

“I think the past practice, the past experience of Frontex of being quite non-transparent, of not having fundamental rights officers and monitors in place, adds to the risk of it being interpreted as something that is not,” he said.

Allegations of violent and unlawful pushbacks at the Greek border have increased since the spring of 2020, when thousands of refugees and migrants tried to cross Greece’s land and sea borders, encouraged by the Turkish government.

Grimheden’s intervention, framed in diplomatic terms, reveals EU concerns about Greek asylum policy. In June, the European Commission’s top migration official, Ylva Johansson, told the Greek government that “violent and illegal deportations of migrants must stop”, warning Athens that it risked losing EU funds.

In the first six months of the year, 5,567 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece by sea, according to the UN refugee agency. UNHCR also reported that Turkey rescued or intercepted 4,700 people in May alone, a 47% increase from the previous month.

The Greek government has always rejected allegations of human rights violations. Speaking in the European Parliament last month [5 July] Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has dismissed accusations of refoulement at his country’s borders. “It is the right of each European Member State to protect its borders in full respect of fundamental rights. This is exactly what Greece has been doing for three years,” he told MPs. He added that Greece’s independent anti-corruption agency was looking into some “worrying” allegations which needed “to be explored further”.

And he accused Turkey of not respecting a 2016 pact with the EU to prevent people from boarding boats for Europe: “Let’s not repeat Turkish propaganda, that they have no role in what is happening and that it is the Greeks who are behaving inhumanely in terms of not protecting fundamental rights.

Grimheden can recommend that Frontex leave an EU member state if there are persistent rights violations, but cautioned against using this “leverage” in Greece. “I could not monitor in Greece, if we are not active in Greece… the complaint mechanism would not be operational for Greece. So I think that in this sense it is essential that Frontex is present.”

Greece should face more checks on treatment of asylum seekers, says EU official

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