NATO’s new mission against illegal people-smugglers in the Mediterranean has drawn criticism from human rights activists, who have highlighted that EU border protection agency Frontex follows different principles when it comes to rescuing people. EURACTIV Germany reports.
The number of people braving a sea voyage to Europe remains alarmingly high. More than 100,000 refugees have already crossed the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). This figure has already eclipsed the total for the first six months of 2015.
The Executive Director of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, confirmed yesterday (23 February) that the number of refugees to arrive in Greece in January is 600% higher than 12 months ago. A statistic that makes for even more grim reading is that 413 people have already died this year while making the crossing.
In an attempt to control the number of people crossing from Turkey, the 28 member states agreed to the deployment of NATO vessels in the Aegean, in a joint operation with Frontex. The proposal to launch an anti-trafficker operation was the brainchild of both Germany and Turkey.
However, it has already raised concerns among human rights groups. The main issue relates to what should be done with the people that are rescued, whether they should be returned from where they set out or brought safely into the EU.
According to Article 10 of a regulation adopted in July 2014, people rescued by Frontex vessels cannot be returned to Turkey, but must be taken to a member state, as Turkey is not considered to be “safe”.
However, the German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, and other Berlin politicians believe Turkey should be considered as “safe”. As a result, von der Leyen believes that NATO ships should be allowed to return migrants to Turkey. Her ministry emphasised that stranded individuals or refugees should not be taken onboard against their will.
Hans-Peter Friedrich (CSU) called upon Frontex to stop bringing illegal migrants into EU territory. He added that international maritime law dictates that people must be taken to a safe place after being rescued and “such ‘safe places’ include Turkey, according to Frontex”. Friedrich demanded that the EU regulation be changed urgently.
Frontex moved to refute such claims. Ewa Moncure, a spokesperson for the agency, told euractiv.de that, “We have never disembarked migrants in Turkey.” Contrary to recent statements, Frontex has never classified Turkey as a “safe place”. Any notion of changing its status is not up for consideration.
Karl Kopp, from aid organisation Pro Asyl, dramatically told euractiv.de that, “The decision to send refugees, rescued in the Aegean, to Turkey would be the death knell of the asylum law.” The Defence Ministry’s plan would be a clear violation of international law, an “illegal push-back”. Rescued refugees would have the right to have their application for protection assessed in an EU member state.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) said that “NATO cannot play any sort of management role in the management of the refugee crisis.”
Pro Asyl warned that the right to asylum can in no way be eroded by the current situation. “Frontex is a philanthropic tool at the EU’s disposal, much like the EU itself,” said Kopp.