Stranded at the border
News was broken last month by BVMN partner, Josoor, showing a disturbing stand-off between Greek and Turkish authorities at the Evros/Meriç river border. 70 people, including families with children and a pregnant woman, were trapped on an island which they had been forced onto during an illegal pushback conducted by Greek authorities. With neither Turkey or Greece willing to allow the group to enter their respective territories, they were stranded for days without food or water in freezing temperatures. Here, BVMN publishes a shocking letter exchange with Frontex, who refused to take any responsibility for the safety of the aforementioned individuals, despite their mandate to ensure fundamental rights.
On 11th November 2020, messages and videos from individuals alerted Josoor to an unfolding situation on an island close to Didymoteicho/Serem. The island in the Evros/Meriç river, situated between Greece and Turkey, became a site of improvised detention, with neither authority allowing the transit group to leave. After being pushed back from Greece, the group faced the Turkish military on the opposing bank who forced them back into the water. This incident is part of a growing phenomenon noted in BVMN reports and confirmed by Josoor’s field observations, who support people on the move in Turkey. In another incident, that occurred several days later, a respondent described how:
“We stayed there for two days, hiding from both sides, Greek and Turkish. Trying to find the right time and way to cross and get back to Turkish land.”
An urgent request for action
In response, AlarmPhone, another NGO, who had been contacted by the same group, alerted both Greek and Turkish authorities. Since Evros is a Frontex operational area and Frontex has a liaison office in Turkey, Josoor led calls on behalf of BVMN for the EU agency to act. Josoor requested timely intervention from Frontex, in order to prevent further risks to the lives of those stranded and ensure border policing was being carried out in respect of fundamental rights. In a letter addressed to Director Fabrice Legerri, Josoor provided the location, details and outlined the critical needs of the individuals concerned:
“We urge you to exercise immediate and decisive pressure on the Greek authorities to rescue those people and ultimately intervene to the best of your abilities in line with the obligations under the European Border and Coast Guard Regulation 2019/19896.“
Despite Frontex being contacted immediately upon receiving the distress call, the letter and multiple emails were ignored for two days, during which time the group’s depleted resources ran down and their physical situation deteriorated. The 70 people – men, women and minors – spent a total of four days stranded without food and water. During this time Frontex willfully ignored their situation, and prolonged the abuse by simply notifying the Greek border forces who had conducted the pushback of this group.
Deflected and ignored
On the evening of 13th November, a day after the group was finally able to leave the island to Turkish territory, Leggeri finally sent a reply to Josoor’s urgent letter. The letter outlined that the location given did not fall under Frontex operational area but that a Frontex team was deployed 32km away. He further stated that Frontex had transmitted the message to the responsible Greek authorities. According to the letter, the Greek authorities had informed Frontex that “there was a group of people spotted in the Turkish territory during the day of 11.11.2020, but they did not cross the border to the Greece territory”, failing to recognise that it was Greek authorities who had placed the group in this dangerous position on the island in the first place. This statement raises more questions than it answers, and represents an abdication of all responsibility on the part of Frontex.
Regarding the question of whether the location was a Frontex operational area, Leggeri seems to be playing with semantics. The Evros border is a Frontex operational area as Frontex is known to have been active there for many years. In March this year, Frontex launched a Rapid Border Intervention and thus increased its operations on the Greek land border. Leggeri himself even paid a visit to Evros in July.
Leggeri stated that the operational area was 32km away, which seems to imply that a Frontex team was deployed in a different part of the Evros border at that specific time. Since the specific locations of deployment are not publicly available anywhere and even redacted in operational plans requested via Freedom of Information Requests, there is no possibility for BVMN to know whether this is indeed what Leggeri was referring to. BVMN is however aware of several different Frontex teams being deployed in the region who are equipped with cars to move from one place to another. These teams have also been observed patrolling the green border along the Evros/Meriç river.
Furthermore, Frontex has a liaison office in Turkey which Josoor pointed out in the letter to the Executive Director. From Leggeri’s response, it does not seem like Frontex made use of this liaison office to alert Turkish authorities of this incident taking place on Turkish territory. Most importantly, the information that a group of people had indeed been spotted in the area on that day, which was provided by the Greek authorities to Frontex, only confirms the testimony provided by the stranded group. The island is Turkish territory and the respondent described Greek officers being present on the Greek side long after the pushback.
In light of the wealth of evidence published this year regarding pushbacks by Greek authorities, there is strong reason to doubt their statement regarding another case of human rights violations. Given the recent revelations of Frontex complicity, and even contribution, in pushbacks from Greece, is deeply concerned by this latest reply. While the agency states that it places fundamental rights at the core of its approach, this image is significantly undercut by it’s daily practice at borders such as Evros.