Five years to the day after a family of Syrian refugees were bundled on to a plane and deported to Turkey despite having lodged asylum claims in Greece, they are taking their case to the European court of justice.
In an unprecedented step, a Dutch firm of human rights lawyers announced on Wednesday that it had filed a lawsuit against Frontex, the EU border agency that operated the flight, and was seeking damages on behalf of the family.
“Frontex has acknowledged there were human rights violations,” said Lisa-Marie Komp, one of the lawyers at the Prakken d’Oliveira practice representing the family. “It has accepted that the refugees never got the chance to have their asylum request processed.”
She said it was crucial that the EU-funded agency was held accountable. “If it is to be given such a far-reaching mandate, then there should be effective possibilities to hold it to account. And if that is not possible, what it will amount to is the undermining of the basic principle of rule of law.”
The action – the first of its kind to be brought before the Luxembourg tribunal – highlights the illegal practice of pushbacks at the EU’s external borders, according to campaigners who have stepped up calls for an end to the alleged abuses.
Frontex has faced accusations of “actively destroying” the fundamental principles on which the EU was built by participating in the pushbacks.
The body, que tiene 660 officers working alongside Greek counterparts at Greece’s sea, land and air borders, has admitted that the Syrian couple and their four children were among 18 passengers onboard the flight from Kos to the southern Turkish city of Adana on 20 octubre 2016.
The family, whose members have not been named in the legal action for security reasons, say they were tricked by EU and Greek officials into believing they would be flown to Athens after initiating asylum requests in Greece.
The refugees were transported to Kos after submitting their claims on the Greek island of Leros, among the five frontline Aegean outposts that were then receiving large numbers of Syrians fleeing civil war in rickety boats from the Turkish coast.
“I never knew I was [going to be] deported to Turkey,” the then 33-year-old father told reporters after being placed in the Düziçi detention camp in the south of the country. “The policemen said ‘leave your dinner, get your stuff, we will take you to a police station for the night and [luego] tomorrow morning to Athens.’”
Once on the flight the family, including four children aged one to seven, were forced to sit apart next to escort guards, who were subsequently identified by the insignia on their uniforms. It was only when the youngest child began to cry uncontrollably that he was allowed to sit on his mother’s lap.
“They were in a very vulnerable position,” said Komp. “The treatment of the children on the flight was itself in contravention of the rights of the child enshrined in article 24 of the charter of fundamental rights of the EU.”
It took three years and eight months before Frontex responded to requests from the Dutch legal team and drafted a report about the internal complaint. “The bottom line is they didn’t take any measures to check whether it was legal to take this family out of Greece,” Komp said.
The Syrians, from the Kurdish town of Kobani, have since settled in northern Iraq for fear of being returned to their war-torn homeland.
Un estimado 1 million Syrians arrived in Greece en route to other parts of Europe at the height of an influx that began in 2015. Although the Greek asylum service was overwhelmed, the leftwing Syriza party then in power in Athens said Syrian refugees would be given priority on islands that soon became synonymous with squalid and vastly overcrowded camps.
The incident was the first recorded expulsion of asylum seekers after the EU reached a landmark deal with Turkey in March 2016 in which it was explicitly stated that people arriving in Greece would have access to a fair asylum procedure.
Yiannis Mouzalas, who was the minister in charge of Greek migration policy at the time, said he ordered an inquiry into the case 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,” said Mouzalas, conceding he had no idea of the inquiry’s findings because he stepped down before it was wrapped up. “But I do know it was the responsibility of the competent Greek authorities [to remove them], not Frontex which transported them.”
Frontex has blamed the decision to return the family on “national authorities”, saying its role was to provide “means of transport, trained escorts, translators and medical personnel.”
An 18-page report released 19 months later, which was subsequently published in the leftwing daily Syntakton, concluded that while the asylum claim had been registered 11 days earlier, it was only logged on the electronic police platform a day after the Syrians was deported.
“Beside the fate of the family, what is so fundamental is that this is the first time the European court of justice will get the opportunity to rule whether Frontex can be held accountable,” said Komp.
Although the right to asylum is enshrined in EU law, there have been mounting reports of dangerous pushbacks. Grecia, Croatia and Romania were recently singled out for censure after an eight-month investigation led by the news organisation Lighthouse Reports found they had conducted a “violent campaign” to stop asylum seekers crossing their borders.
The European Council on Refugees and Exiles, an alliance of 103 NGOs across 39 countries on the continent, has attributed “emerging evidence” of hundreds of illegal pushback operations to security forces in member states, often acting with the tacit support of Brussels.