A Syrian family was deported to Turkey by Frontex in 2016 despite having lodged asylum claims in Greece. Now, they have taken the EU border agency to the European Court of Justice. The lawsuit could set a precedence.
On October 20, 2016, a family of Syrian asylum seekers was returned from Greece to Turkey by plane although a decision on their asylum claim in Greece had not been reached.
On Wednesday (October 20), exactly five years after they were deported, the family filed a lawsuit against the EU border and coast guard agency Frontex at the European Court of Justice (ECJ). It's the first such claim for damages against Frontex at the ECJ.
According to German news website tagesschau.de, the Syrian claimant Omar B. is represented by Dutch human rights lawyer Lisa-Marie Komp. According to Komp, the ECJ needs to deal with the question of "in what way Frontex is responsible for human rights violations in the 'Joint Operations,' which the agency conducts with personnel of EU member states."
At one such operation in 2016, Frontex officers are said to have assisted their Greek colleagues in deporting Omar B., his wife and their four children. This so-called pushback is something hundreds of migrants and refugees experienced at the EU's external border over the past few years. By now, the illegal practice is also well-documented.
What makes this particular case special, Komp said, was the fact that everything had been well-documented, including their asylum application shortly before their deportation.
First recorded expulsion
According to the British newspaper The Guardian, the pushback was the first case of asylum seekers being expelled following the landmark EU-Turkey deal from March 2016. The agreement explicitly stated that migrants arriving in EU member state Greece have a right to a fair asylum procedure, reported The Guardian.
The Greek migration minister at the time, Yiannis Mouzalas, told The Guardian he had ordered an inquiry after it became clear that "violations" had occurred.
"An asylum request was lodged and it was evident the process had been violated and something illegal had happened," Mouzalas told The Guardian, adding he didn't learn about the inquiry's findings as he stepped down before they were released. "But I do know it was the responsibility of the competent Greek authorities [to remove them], not Frontex which transported them."
Frontex has hitherto denied any involvement in pushbacks, including in the case of Omar B. and his family, which the agency has blamed on "national authorities". Its role was to provide "means of transport, trained escorts, translators and medical personnel," The Guardian reported.
Deportation before asylum decision
In the fall of 2016, Omar B. and his family fled to Turkey, from where they traveled to the Greek Aegean Islands. After they had lodged their asylum claims, a Greek policeman told Omar B. that the family was going to be brought to Athens.
Then, on October 20, 2016 the family boarded a plane on the island of Kos. Frontex officers were on board, too, according to tagesschau.de. Omar B. says he didn't grow suspicious as EU law dictates that asylum seekers must not be deported before a asylum decision has been made.
"When the airplane landed, we saw the Turkish flags at the airport," B. told tagesschau.de. "That's when we realized that we had been lied to and abducted." After the family was brought to the Turkish city of Adana, their lawyer unsuccessfully tried to file a complaint with Frontex. The agency said the responsibility rested with the Greek authorities, which didn't see a rights violation.
The first claim of many?
Today, Omar B. and his family live in northern Iraq. The European Court of Justice is his last chance for justice, albeit a late one. "I really hope that the European court grants me justice and convicts the men who lied to us and abducted us in Greece and brought us to Turkey," he told tagesschau.de.
Komp, his lawyer, expects the trial to take at least a year and a half before a verdict is reached. But she's convinced that her client will win the case given the clear body of evidence for Frontex's complicity.
"Despite their children being so young, the family was separated on the plane. They were forbidden from talking to one another," Komp said. She hopes Omar B.'s claim won't remain an isolated case.