Migration lawsuit launched against EU’s border agency

International

FILE – In this Friday Feb. 28, 2020 file photo, refugees and migrants arrive in a dinghy accompanied by Frontex vessels at the village of Skala Sikaminias, on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey. Human rights lawyers said on Tuesday, May 25, 2021, that they have launched legal action against the European Union’s border and coast guard agency at the bloc’s top court, accusing Frontex of violating the rights of people trying to seek asylum and other breaches of international law. (AP Photo/Michael Varaklas, File)

BRUSSELS (AP) — Human rights lawyers said Tuesday that they have launched legal action against the European Union’s border and coast guard agency at the bloc’s top court, accusing Frontex of violating the rights of people trying to seek asylum and other breaches of international law.

The case was filed at the European Court of Justice by Front-Lex, a legal hub challenging EU migration policies. It concerns a woman from Burundi and a Congolese teenager who tried to apply for international protection on the Greek island of Lesbos last year.

The lawyers said it’s the first time that Frontex has been taken before the Luxembourg-based ECJ in its 17 years of operations, and that they plan to hold the agency to account and “reinstate the rule of law over EU borders.”

They claim that the two migrants “were violently rounded up, robbed, abducted, detained, forcibly transferred back to sea, collectively expelled, and ultimately abandoned on rafts with no means of navigation, food or water.”

They said the two “were victims of other ‘push-back’ operations during the attempt to find protection in the EU.” Under EU and international refugee law, people fearing for their lives or fleeing persecution can apply for asylum and must not be pushed back, that is, sent back to where they may face further danger.

Frontex, which has repeatedly denied allegations of pushbacks and other claims of abuses, rejected the move as a masquerade.

“This is not really a legal case. It’s an activist agenda pretending to be a legal case, whose aim is to undermine the EU’s resolve to protect its borders,” Frontex spokesman Chris Borowski said.

In their submission, the lawyers said the 15-year-old boy was among a group of migrants whose phones, bags and money were allegedly confiscated by masked members of the Greek coast guard in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece in May 2020. Migrants were loaded onto a rubber raft in Turkish waters.

The incidents were one of several involving the boy, according to the documents. Witness testimony, media reports and other evidence suggest that he and the woman allegedly suffered further abuses in late November. As of February, both remained in Turkey and still hoped to reach Greece to apply for asylum.

Frontex coordinates search and rescue and border interception operations on behalf of the 27 EU member countries. However, the country on whose territory the operation is happening — in this case Greece — has command over what goes on.

“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,” lawyers Omer Shatz and Iftach Cohen from Front-LEX said in a statement.

Frontex has come under heavy fire, accused of involvement or complicity in pushbacks, often in the Aegean Sea, but the agency denies the allegations. An internal probe this year found no evidence that Frontex was involved in pushback reports made public by a media consortium last October.

The European Parliament has launched its own investigation and is expected to release its findings in coming months. The EU’s anti-fraud agency has also been probing allegations of mismanagement at Frontex.

In a letter to the lawyers, seen by The Associated Press, Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri rejected any claim of wrongdoing.

“I am confident that the Agency has undertaken its activities in strict compliance with the applicable legal framework, including fundamental rights obligations,” he wrote.

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Renata Brito in Barcelona, Spain, contributed to this report.

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