Withdrawing Frontex from Greece, as suggested by the agency's own Fundamental Rights Officer following one of the deadliest shipwrecks in Europe, could restrict "our capabilities to save lives," the agency's chief said on Thursday.
Hans Leijtens, the executive director of the EU's external border agency, told the European Parliament’s Justice Committee that a decision to suspend activity in Greece “affects our capability to save lives” and “needs to be balanced.”
His comments come two weeks after Jonas Grimheden, Frontex's own Fundamental Rights Officer, who ensures compliance with EU and international law, called for a suspension of the agency's activities in Greece.
Article 46 of Frontex's regulations could allow it to suspend or terminate its activities in a country if there have been "violations of fundamental rights or international protection obligations that are of a serious nature or are likely to persist."
Currently, 518 standing corps officers and Frontex staff members work in Greece’s mainland and islands, according to the agency.
Leijtens confirmed on Thursday that a Frontex plane spotted and monitored the overcrowded vessel in mid-June, providing real-time information to Greek and Italian authorities.
“We offered two times to deploy one of our drones […] we did not receive any answers.”
“Indeed, we offered help but there was no response from Greek authorities in the meantime,” he added.
The Greek authorities’ response to the shipwreck, one of the deadliest tragedies of its kind which left 80 confirmed dead and hundreds missing, is under increasing scrutiny. They are being accused of standing idly by for hours before the boat capsized in the hope it would continue its journey toward Italy.
There are increasing calls for an independent investigation to bring justice for the victims. Frontex has launched a serious incident report (SIR) to identify potential human rights violations, but the report does not amount to a formal investigation.
Athens has opened an investigation led by the general prosecutor, but MEPs Thursday cast doubts over the Greek prosecutor’s independence.
Greece is accused of having repeatedly violated EU and international law at sea and of having carried out illegal migrant pushbacks as recently as April.
A report by the EU's anti-fraud office, OLAF, leaked late last year detailed several instances of pushbacks by the Greek authorities in the Aegean Sea between 2020 and 2021, with Frontex accused of covering up the events.
Yet previous investigations carried out by Greek authorities into such accusations had cleared government agencies of any wrongdoings.
When pressured on whether the European Commission could facilitate an independent and transparent investigation, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said that “member states are responsible for these kinds of investigations […] we need to trust the judicial system in member states."
"There is an urgent need for a thorough, transparent and effective investigation, and I agree that this is important for many reasons, not least for the Greek reputation,” she added.
In response, Renew Europe MEP Sophie in 't Veld questioned the record of the Greek prosecutor in historical cases of migrant pushbacks.
“It is very naive to say that the Greek authorities are going to care of this and we can trust them,” she said.
Commissioner Johansson also said that the European Commission monitors the independence of member states’ judiciaries, conceding that the Greek system is sometimes a “slow process” and “needs to speed up.”
She also emphasized the problem required multiple solutions, including working closely with countries of origin and transit countries to tackle the root problem of people smuggling.
The European Commission has deals in place with several North African countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Morocco to reduce irregular migration into EU territory.