LONDON: A Syrian family is taking the EU’s border agency to the European Court of Justice to seek damages for their deportation from Greece to Turkey, which occurred after they had lodged an asylum claim.
They say they were tricked into boarding a deportation flight by EU and Greek officials five years ago, after they were told they would be flown to Athens but were instead taken to Turkey.
Prakken d’Oliveira, a Dutch law firm specializing in human rights cases, said on Wednesday that it has filed a lawsuit against Frontex, the EU agency responsible for border enforcement, and is seeking damages on behalf of the family. The deportation amounted to a violation of their human rights, the firm said, and Frontex operated the flight that carried it out.
The incident was the first recorded case of expulsion of asylum seekers after the EU reached a deal with Turkey in 2016 that explicitly stated that people arriving in Greece would have access to a fair asylum procedure.
“Frontex has acknowledged there were human rights violations. (It) has accepted that the refugees never got the chance to have their asylum request processed,” said Lisa-Marie Komp, one of the lawyers representing the family.
She said it is critical that the EU agency is held accountable for its actions and added: “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.
“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.”
The action is the first of its kind brought before the Luxembourg-based tribunal. It will highlight the practice of illegal pushbacks and other methods that campaigners argue deny asylum seekers their rights.
Frontex has faced accusations of “actively destroying” the fundamental principles on which the EU was built by participating in the pushbacks.
The Syrian family, who have not been named for security reasons, said they were tricked into boarding the deportation flight after submitting asylum claims on the Greek island of Leros.
“I never knew I was (going to be) deported to Turkey,” the then 33-year-old father told reporters at the time. “The policemen said, ‘Leave your dinner, get your stuff, we will take you to a police station for the night and (then) tomorrow morning to Athens.’”
The family, which included four children between the ages of one and seven, were forced to sit separately on the flight. They identified representatives of the EU border agency by the insignia on their guards’ uniforms.
“They were in a very vulnerable position,” Komp said. “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.
“The bottom line is they didn’t take any measures to check whether it was legal to take this family out of Greece.”
The family, from the Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria, are now living in northern Iraq, fearing persecution in war-torn Syria if they return home.
Frontex has blamed “national authorities” for the incident, arguing that its role was merely to provide “means of transport, trained escorts, translators and medical personnel.”
An investigation into the incident, the results of which were published 19 months later, found that the asylum claim was registered 11 days before the flight that took the family to Turkey but was only logged on the electronic police system a day after they were deported.
Yiannis Mouzalas, who was the minister in charge of Greek migration policy at the time, said he ordered an inquiry into the case when 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,” he said.
Mouzalas said he had no knowledge of the outcome of the inquiry because he subsequently left his post, but added: “I do know it was the responsibility of the competent Greek authorities (to remove them), not Frontex which transported them.”