Court dismisses landmark case against E.U.’s Frontex border agency


BRUSSELS — A European Union court dismissed a first-of-its-kind case Wednesday brought by a Syrian family alleging unlawful deportation by the E.U. border agency, with the court saying the agency is not empowered to weigh in on “return decisions.”

The judgment is a blow to asylum seekers, their lawyers and activists who hoped it would set a precedent. But they say it will raise awareness about unlawful deportations and the challenges of holding E.U. institutions to account.

The court decision comes amid growing concern about rights abuses at Europe’s borders and an increasingly hostile climate for migrants and asylum seekers around the world.

This was the first action for damages against Frontex to be brought before the General Court of the European Union, which is part of the Court of Justice of the European Union. If it had been successful, it would have been the first case that found the agency responsible for human rights violations, said Mariana Gkliati, an assistant professor of migration and asylum law at the Netherlands’ Tilburg University.

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The family — a father, mother and their four young children — arrived in Greece in the fall of 2016, during Europe’s previous migration surge. They filed for asylum and received confirmation that the claim was registered.

Less than two weeks later, they were taken to a police station, then bundled onto a plane without explanation, according to their lawyer.

“We thought we were going to Athens,” the father said this week in a telephone interview. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing concerns about their privacy.

On the plane, the family was flanked by guards and separated. They did not understand what was happening, the father said.

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It was not until they landed that they realized they had been deported to Turkey. “I was surprised to see the Turkish flag from the window,” the father recalled. The family was then detained.

Given conditions in Turkey, the family decided to flee to Iraq.

Lisa-Marie Komp, who represented the family on behalf of Prakken d’Oliveira Human Rights Lawyers, argued that Frontex is obliged to monitor compliance with human rights laws during missions with member states.

“You can’t just deport people to another country. Before someone can be deported, it must be assessed whether he or she needs asylum protection, and that has not happened here,” she said. “With this case, we want to make it clear that no one, including Frontex, is above the law.”

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Ahead of the judgment, a spokesperson for Frontex said national governments, not the agency, are responsible for deciding who is put on this type of flight.

On Wednesday, the court essentially agreed with that, saying “Frontex’s task is only to provide technical and operational support to the Member States,” according to their press release.

“It is the Member States alone that are competent to assess the merits of return decisions and to examine applications for international protection,” the release read.

Though asylum seekers, rights groups, lawyers and journalists have long documented unlawful deportations from Europe, it has been difficult to hold E.U. institutions accountable in court.

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In some cases, families have been pushed out of the E.U. before having a chance to register their asylum claims, making it difficult to prove they were unlawfully deported.

In the case of the Syrian family, they received and retained proof that their asylum claim was registered in Greece, according to their lawyer. Their legal team was also able to confirm that they were taken from Greece on a joint Frontex-Greek flight.

The team behind the case hopes it will pressure E.U. officials to do more to hold Frontex to account.

A judgment against their claim still calls attention to “the lack of accountability for those affected by pushbacks” Komp said. “This is a clear call to political institutions to fix this.”

Salim reported from Baghdad.


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