An investigation by a number of European media organizations has found that Frontex, Europe's border security agency, has been involved in several illegal "pushbacks" of asylum seekers crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.
The investigation says it showed "for the first time that senior Frontex officials know about illegal practices by Greek border guards — and that some of them are themselves implicated in pushbacks," according to the website of the German weekly Der Spiegel.
The investigative report was produced as part of a collaboration between several media collectives including Bellingcat and Lighthouse Reports, as well as Der Spiegel magazine, Japanese broadcaster TV Asahi, and German public broadcaster ARD.
Six instances of such pushbacks have allegedly been recorded by the team of journalists behind the investigation since April. The report said that Frontex units at a minimum did not stop migrant boats in Greek waters from being returned towards Turkey.
However, a video from an incident in June reportedly even shows a Frontex boat blocking the passage a boat at sea, with a later shot from the same event showing images of the same Frontex boat racing across the bow of the migrant boat before leaving the area.
Frontex is tasked with the external border control of the Schengen Area, with its activities in the Aegean falling under its mandate as part of "Operation Poseidon." Reports of alleged pushbacks involving Frontex have been increasing in 2020.
Read more: Are pushbacks at sea legal?
Definition of pushback
Pushbacks are incidents where refugees, migrants and asylum seekers are illegally returned across a border without consideration of their individual circumstances and without any possibility to apply for asylum or to put forward arguments against the measures taken.
Under such circumstances, they could be returned to a country where they might face persecution or outright rejection. In certain cases, they encounter violence while forcefully being returned.
Frontex meanwhile said that its operations remained "in full respect of fundamental rights and international law" — however, Der Spiegel said that Frontex would not comment on the individual cases uncovered by the investigation.
Dana Schmalz, an international law expert at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, told Bellingcat, however, that the incidents presented in this investigation were likely "illegal" and in violation of the "prohibition of refoulement and maritime law."
Refoulement is a legal term used to describe pushbacks as defined by UN international law. A spokesperson for the Greek Maritime Ministry Greek squarely denied claims of pushbacks, saying that "the operation practices of the Greek authorities have never included such actions."
Frontex meanwhile announced it would remain in touch with Greek authorities to continue to clear up the matter.
Through methodology behind investigation
The team conducting the investigation said they had compared "dozens" of videos recorded at sea, cross-referencing them with satellite imagery and open-source data while corroborating eyewitness accounts from both migrants and Frontex personnel.
"Open source data suggests Frontex assets were actively involved in one pushback incident at the Greek-Turkish maritime border in the Aegean Sea, were present at another and have been in the vicinity of four more since March," Bellincat wrote in its report.
Journalist Emmanuel Freudenthal, who was part of the research team, stressed that the results of the investigation showed that Frontex was "endangering the lives of dozens of people seeking refuge in the EU."
Greece has always rejected claims of illegal pushbacks at sea; Greek Immigration Minister Notis Mitarakis said on Saturday: "Our country protects its borders with an absolute respect for international law."
Various news organizations have in the past already published allegations regarding pushbacks in the Aegean Sea.