The German forces participating in the European Border and Coast Guard Agency’s (Frontex) mission in the Aegean Sea helped the Greek coast guards push migrants back toward Turkish territorial waters, a German report said Sunday.
German weekly Der Spiegel reported that at least one time, the German forces were involved in the illegal practice of pushing migrants back toward Turkey, thereby risking their lives in the sea, as a letter written by Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri to the European Commission revealed.
Der Spiegel had revealed that Frontex actively helped Greek coast guards push migrants back to Turkish waters, and the letter written by Leggeri followed these reports as an explanation to the European Commission.
In the specific incident cited in the report, federal police on board the German patrol boat BP62 reached an overloaded inflatable boat inside Greek waters on the morning of Aug. 10.
Instead of immediately rescuing the nearly 40 migrants on board, the patrol boat blocked their 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 migrants, after the Greek coast guard apparently towed the migrants' inflatable boats back into Turkish waters.
In response to the fresh claims, the German Interior Ministry stated that German security forces acted within the context of the Frontex’s Poseidon operation and they were under the orders of Greek authorities.
Frank Schwabe, the human rights spokesperson for Germany's center-left Social Democrats (SPD), said that German federal police assigned to the European Union's Frontex patrols should be withdrawn if implicated in migrant pushbacks.
“Germans must on no account be involved in pushbacks, not even indirectly,” Schwabe told Der Spiegel and ARD public television's investigative Mainz Report, as quoted by the Deutsche Welle (DW).
If Frontex did not stop the involvement of German federal police units in such pushbacks, then “the German contingent must be withdrawn,” insisted Schwabe.
Der Spiegel documented at least six incidents where Frontex units were involved in pushbacks near the islands of Lesbos and Samos between April 28 and Aug. 19.
While the border agency is required to rescue migrants, the Frontex vessels patrolling the area sped past the overcrowded, inflatable boats, creating dangerous waves to force them to return to Turkish shores. A Frontex aircraft was also documented passing over migrants who were seeking help at sea but did not rescue them.
The European Commission said last month it expects answers from the Frontex border agency after allegations that migrants crossing from Turkey toward Greece were pushed back.
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.
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.”
In October, nearly 30 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also called on Greece to open an “urgent inquiry” into allegations that it was systematically pushing migrants back toward Turkey.
Numerous reports by journalists, researchers and witnesses have cataloged the way in which migrants and asylum-seekers have been forced back across the border to Turkey or left stranded in the Aegean Sea without aid from Greece's coast guard, despite the conservative government's denials in Athens.
Pushbacks are considered contrary to international refugee protection agreements. Under the principle of “non-refoulement,” people should not be expelled or returned to a country where their life and safety might be in danger due to their race, religion, nationality or membership in a social or political group.
Turkey and Greece have been key transit points for migrants aiming to cross into Europe, fleeing war and persecution to start new lives.
Turkey has accused Greece of large-scale pushbacks and summary deportations without access to asylum procedures, which is a violation of international law. It also accuses the EU of turning a blind eye to what it says is a blatant abuse of human rights.
The Turkish Coast Guard Command said it rescued over 300 migrants “pushed back by Greek elements to Turkish waters” in September alone. Citing what they say are credible reports, international rights groups have repeatedly called for an investigation.
Earlier this year, the Turkish Defense Ministry said: “Greek soldiers do not refrain from moves that could sink boats carrying dozens of migrants, including children. They open fire around the boats and puncture rubber dinghies with spiked sticks.”
Despite initially taking a neutral stance and a mediator role in the maritime disputes between Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, Germany in recent weeks has abandoned its neutral stance and shifted toward a perspective supporting Greece.
Also, the German frigate Hamburg, taking part in the EU's Operation Irini, last week unlawfully stopped and searched a commercial Turkish cargo vessel carrying food and paint supplies to Libya in the Eastern Mediterranean. Footage obtained from the interception showed armed soldiers boarding the ship in a manner that resembled a counterterrorism operation.