• Is Frontex involved in illegal ’pushbacks’ in the Balkans ?

    Refugees and migrants in Greece trying to reach western Europe have accused EU border protection agency Frontex of taking part in illegal deportations known as “pushbacks.” DW reports.

    Ali al-Ebrahim fled in 2018 from Manbij, a Syrian city that was under Kurdish control, to escape being forced to fight in the conflict.

    Al-Ebrahim, now 22, first tried his luck in Turkey. When he arrived in Antakya, not far from the Syrian border, Turkish authorities took his details and sent him back home without citing any reasons, the young Syrian man says in very good English. He explains that this meant he was banned from legally entering Turkey again for five years.

    Nevertheless, al-Ebrahim decided to try again, this time with the aim of reaching Greece. He managed to make his way to Turkey’s Aegean coastline and eventually reached the Greek island of Leros in a rubber dinghy. When he applied for asylum, however, his application was rejected on the grounds that Turkey was a safe third country.

    But al-Ebrahim was not able to return to Turkey, and certainly not Syria — though this was of no interest to Greek authorities. “The new Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is very strict when it comes to migrants,” he says. “So I decided to go to Albania.”
    Uniforms with the EU flag

    Al-Ebrahim says that in September 2020, he traveled by bus with five others to the northern Greek city of Ioannina, and then walked to the Albanian border without encountering any Greek police.

    But, he says, staff from the EU border protection agency Frontex stopped them in Albania and handed them over to Albanian authorities in the border town of Kakavia. When asked how he knew they were Frontex officials, al-Ebrahim replies, “I could tell from their armbands.”

    Frontex staff wear light-blue armbands with the EU flag on them.
    €5,000 to reach Austria

    Al-Ebrahim says that he and the other migrants asked the Albanian authorities for asylum but were told that the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible to file any new asylum applications. They were then just sent back to Greece without the Greek authorities being notified, he says.

    Al-Ebrahim had more luck on the second attempt. He managed to travel to the Albanian capital, Tirana, and then on to Serbia via Kosovo.

    His interview with DW takes place at a refugee camp in the Serbian city of Sombor, near the Hungarian border. Al-Ebrahim says he wants to travel on through Hungary into Austria, but the traffickers charge €5,000 to get as far as the Austrian border.

    Detention instead of asylum

    Hope Barker has heard many similar stories before. She coordinates the project “Wave - Thessaloniki,” which provides migrants traveling the Balkan route with food, medical care and legal advice. Barker tells DW that the northern Greek city was a safe haven until the new conservative government took office in summer 2019.

    In January 2020, a draconian new law came into effect in Greece. According to Barker, it allows authorities to detain asylum seekers for up to 18 months without reviewing their cases — and detention can then be extended for another 18 months.

    “So you can be held in detention for three years without any action on your case if you ask for asylum,” says Baker.

    Pushbacks by Frontex?

    Baker tells DW that the illegal deportation of migrants, known as “pushbacks,” happen both at the borders and further inland. Migrants trying to reach western Europe avoid any contact with Greek authorities.

    Refugee aid organizations say there have been “lots of pushbacks” at the border with North Macedonia and Albania. Baker says that witnesses have reported hearing those involved speaking German, for example, and seeing the EU insignia on their blue armbands.

    Frontex rejects allegations

    Baker says that it is, nonetheless, difficult to prove pushbacks at the Greek border because of the confusing situation, but she adds that they know that Frontex is active in Albania and that there are pushbacks on a daily basis across the River Evros that flows through Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey and forms a large part of the border. “We know that pushbacks are happening daily. So, to think that they don’t know or are not at all involved in those practices seems beyond belief,” says Baker.

    A Frontex spokesman told DW that the agency had investigated some of the allegations and “found no credible evidence to support any of them.”

    Frontex added that its staff was bound by a code of conduct, which explicitly calls for the “prevention of refoulement and the upholding of human rights, all in line with the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.”

    “We are fully committed to protecting fundamental rights,” it added.

    Border protection from beyond the EU

    So why does the European border protection agency protect an external border of the European Union from the Albanian side? “The main aim of the operation is to support border control, help tackle irregular migration, as well as cross-border crime, including migrant smuggling, trafficking in human beings and terrorism, and identify possible risks and threats related to security,” said Frontex to DW.

    Frontex also said that cooperation with countries in the western Balkans was one of its priorities. “The agency supports them in complying with EU standards and best practices in border management and security,” the spokesman said.

    Yet it is worthwhile taking a look at another part of Greece’s border. While military and police officers are omnipresent at the Greek-Turkish border and are supported by Frontex staff, you seldom encounter any uniforms in the mountains between Greece and Albania. As a result, this route is regarded as safe by refugees and migrants who want to travel onward to western Europe via Greece.

    The route west

    Many migrants travel from Thessaloniki to the picturesque town of Kastoria, about 30 kilometers outside Albania. “There, the police pick us up from the bus and take us to the Albanian border,” Zakarias tells DW at the Wave Center in Thessaloniki. He is Moroccan and arrived in Greece via Turkey.

    But at this point, these are just rumors.

    That afternoon the men get on the bus. Another Moroccan man, 46-year-old Saleh Rosa, is among them. He has been in Greece for a year and was homeless for a long time in Thessaloniki. “Greece is a good country, but I cannot live here,” Rosa tells DW. He aims to reach western Europe via Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and then Hungary.

    Ominous police checks

    Police stop the bus shortly before its arrival in Kastoria. There is a parked police car with uniformed officers. Two men in plain clothes board the bus, claiming to be police. Without showing any ID, they target the foreigners, detaining Saleh, Zakarias and their companions.

    At around 11pm that same evening, the migrants send a WhatsApp message and their Google coordinates. They say that the men in plainclothes have taken them to a place some 15 kilometers from the Albanian border, but within Greece. Later in the Albanian capital, Tirana, DW met with Rosa again, who stresses that his papers were not checked in Greece.

    Conflicting accounts

    When asked by DW, Greek police authorities confirmed the existence of the plain-clothed officers and the roadside check. But then their account diverges from that of the two men. Police said they wanted to check if the migrants were legally permitted to be in Greece and they were released once this was confirmed.

    But the migrants say that Saleh Rosa was the only one with the papers to stay in Greece legally and that the other men were unregistered. Moreover, there is a curfew in Greece because of COVID-19. You are only allowed to travel from one district to another in exceptional cases. Even if they had been carrying papers, the men should have been fined.

    The police refused to comment on that.

    https://www.dw.com/en/is-frontex-involved-in-illegal-pushbacks-in-the-balkans/a-56141370

    #Frontex #Balkans #route_des_balkans #asile #migrations #réfugiés #frontières #push-backs #refoulements #Albanie #Serbie #Kosovo #Sombor #Hongrie #Macédoine_du_Nord #Evros #Grèce

    –---

    voir aussi les accusations envers Frontex de refoulement en #Mer_Egée :
    Migrations : l’agence européenne #Frontex mise en cause pour des #refoulements en mer
    https://seenthis.net/messages/882952

    • Frontex confronted with allegations of violence in North Macedonia

      Allegations that officials deployed on Frontex operations have participated in or condoned violence against people on the move in North Macedonia must be investigated, says a letter (https://www.statewatch.org/media/2494/letter-to-frontex-sw-and-bvmn.pdf) sent to Frontex today by #Statewatch and #Border_Violence_Monitoring_Network (#BVMN).

      Allegations that officials deployed on Frontex operations have participated in or condoned violence against people on the move in North Macedonia must be investigated, says a letter sent to Frontex today by Statewatch and Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN).

      Since September 2019, volunteers for BVMN have gathered five separate testimonies from people pushed back from North Macedonia to Greece alleging the presence of Frontex officers on North Macedonian territory, where the agency has no legal authority to act. The reports involve a total of 130 people.

      The testimonies include allegations that officers deployed by Frontex engaged in or condoned brutal violence – including the use of tasers and electroshock batons, throwing people into rivers, and tying people up and beating them.

      Frontex says it has no records of any such incidents. The agency’s press office said to Statewatch last month that “Frontex does not have any operational activities at the land border from the North Macedonian side,” and “is only present on the Greek side of the border.”

      The letter, addressed to Frontex’s executive director, the new Fundamental Rights Officer, and the agency’s Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights, calls for a thorough investigation into the allegations to clarify the facts and ensure appropriate action against any individuals found to have engaged in, condoned or consented to violence and/or to have acted on North Macedonian territory.

      The violence allegedly meted out or condoned by Frontex officials is part of a broader wave of violence against people on the move through North Macedonia. Since February 2019, BVMN volunteers have gathered 37 reports of pushbacks from North Macedonia to Greece, which are likely only a fraction of the total number of pushback cases.

      The five reports alleging the presence of Frontex officials are a subset of 15 testimonies that cite the involvement of foreign officials working alongside North Macedonian officers.

      An analysis published today by Statewatch (https://www.statewatch.org/analyses/2021/foreign-agents-and-violence-against-migrants-at-the-greek-macedonian-bor) looks at the deployment of foreign border guards to North Macedonia, which since 2015 has played a key role in the EU’s efforts to prevent migrants and refugees departing from Greece to reach ‘core’ EU territory further north.

      A number of states (members of the EU and other states in the region) have signed bilateral deals with the North Macedonian government that allow the deployment of border guards in the country.

      Frontex, meanwhile, is not yet legally able to operate there. An agreement between the EU and North Macedonia is in the works, but is being held up in a dispute over language (https://www.statewatch.org/analyses/2021/briefing-external-action-frontex-operations-outside-the-eu).

      The agency must provide answers and an investigation into the numerous allegations of its officials being involved in abuse.

      https://www.statewatch.org/news/2021/june/frontex-confronted-with-allegations-of-violence-in-north-macedonia
      #Macédoine_du_Nord

    • Briefing: External action: Frontex operations outside the EU

      The EU has negotiated five agreements with states in the Balkans that allow Frontex operations on their territories, and most of the agreements have now been approved by both sides. This briefing looks at the main provisions of those agreements, highlights key differences and similarities, and argues that they will likely serve as a template for future deals with states that do not border the EU, as made possible by the 2019 Regulation governing Frontex.

      For an overview of the key points of the agreements, see the table at the end of this article, or here as a PDF (https://www.statewatch.org/media/2011/eu-frontex-external-action-briefing-table.pdf).

      Frontex launched its first official joint operation on non-EU territory at Albania’s border with Greece in May 2019. Still ongoing today, this was the first operation resulting from a series of Status Agreements between the EU and a number of Western Balkan states – Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia.

      These agreements make it possible for Frontex to undertake operations on those other states’ territories. Signed in accordance with the agency’s 2016 Regulation, all five agreements allow the agency to carry out joint operations and rapid border interventions on the states’ borders, where those borders are coterminous with those of an EU member state or states. Frontex can also assist those states with deportation operations from EU member states to those countries. Since the entry into force of Frontex’s 2019 mandate, the EU can now also make such agreements with states that do not border EU territory.

      The contents of the status agreements, all based on a template document produced by the Commission, are very similar, with small but important differences emerging from the negotiation procedures with each state, explored below.

      The first agreements in context

      The five Balkan states targeted for the first agreements make up what is seen by officials as a “buffer zone” between Greece and other Schengen states, and they have long been embroiled in the bloc’s border policies. Through long negotiations over accession to the Union (https://www.statewatch.org/analyses/2020/albania-dealing-with-a-new-migration-framework-on-the-edge-of-the-empire), Western Balkan states are at various stages of approximating domestic law with the EU’s legal ‘acquis’, involving substantial amendments to migration and asylum systems.

      In theory, these systems must match up to EU legal and fundamental rights standards in order to allow accession, though violence against migrants is well documented on both sides of these “coterminous borders”. The so-called Balkan Route is the site of well-documented abuses (https://www.statewatch.org/news/2021/january/eu-the-black-book-of-pushbacks-testimonies-of-pushbacks-affecting-over-1) suffered by people on the move, recently compiled and published in a ‘Black Book of pushbacks’ which detail violence perpetrated by border agents, member state police and soldiers. Pushbacks from Croatia (https://www.statewatch.org/news/2020/november/european-commission-plans-to-visit-croatia-in-light-of-human-rights-viol) and Hungary are particularly notorious, with Frontex finally withdrawing its support for operations in Hungary (https://www.statewatch.org/statewatch-database/frontex-suspends-operations-in-hungary) in January this year due to the state’s violation of a European Court of Justice ruling against pushbacks into Serbia.

      The agency had long-insisted that its presence discouraged fundamental rights violations (https://www.statewatch.org/news/2021/february/frontex-management-board-pushes-back-against-secrecy-proposals-in-prelim) - a far less credible claim in the wake of allegations (https://www.statewatch.org/news/2021/february/frontex-management-board-pushes-back-against-secrecy-proposals-in-prelim) of Frontex complicity in serious incidents in the Aegean, including possible pushbacks.

      Frontex expands external operations while future agreements remain on hold

      Following deployment of officers to Montenegro’s border with Croatia in July, Frontex launched a second operation in Montenegro in October. The third executive operation outside the EU (and the second in Montenegro), the aim of this activity is “to tackle cross-border crime at the country’s sea borders, including the smuggling of drugs and weapons, smuggling of migrants, trafficking in human beings and terrorism”.

      The agency says it will provide aerial surveillance, deploy officers from EU member states, and provide technical and operational assistance with coast guard functions in international waters, “including search and rescue support, fisheries control and environmental protection”.

      The agreement with Serbia was approved by the European Parliament in February this year, along with the agreement with Montenegro. Three presidential entities need to sign the agreement in order for it to be ratified by Bosnia and Herzegovina’s government; the Serb entity has so far refused to do so.

      Meanwhile, the agreement with North Macedonia was due to be tabled in the European Parliament this autumn, but negotiations have been held up, in part by Bulgaria’s objection to the language in which it is written. According to the site European Western Balkans, “Bulgaria does not recognise the language of North Macedonia as ‘Macedonian’”, but “as a dialect of Bulgarian”. It will apparently take “a change in terminology regarding Macedonian language in order to allow progress in drafting a final negotiating framework”. While negotiations are stalled, the agreement cannot be considered by the European Parliament.

      Once the status agreements are in force, Frontex operations are launched in accordance with an operational plan agreed with each state. These plans include the circumstances under which Frontex staff can use executive powers and other details of the operations not available elsewhere. These plans are not systematically made public and although it is possible for the public to request their release, Frontex can refuse access to them. These non-public documents contain important provisions on fundamental rights and data protection, as well as details on the aims and objectives of the agency’s operations.

      Fundamental rights

      Under article 8 of the agreements with Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina (article 9 of the other agreements) all parties are obliged to:

      “[H]ave a complaint mechanism to deal with allegations of a breach of fundamental rights committed by its staff in the exercise of their official functions in the course of a joint operation, rapid border intervention or return operation performed under this agreement”.

      Both Frontex and the host state must operate such a complaints mechanism, to handle allegations against their own team members. Frontex’s complaint mechanism is currently the subject of an Ombudsman inquiry, following years of research showing it up as inaccessible and ineffective. Details of updates bringing the mechanism into line with Frontex’s 2019 Regulation have not yet been made public, although the rules set out in that Regulation have problems of their own. It is noteworthy that the agreements do not explicitly require an independent complaints mechanism.

      On the question of parallel complaints mechanisms for Frontex officers and host country officers, a Frontex spokesperson explained:

      “The complaints team within Frontex Fundamental Rights Office has been working since 2019 on the concept of how to deal with complaints concerning Frontex activities in [Albania]. For that purpose, the FRO team met with competent national authorities in Albania in October 2019. Both parties agreed on the draft of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), the purpose of which is a coordination between both complaints mechanisms. The MoU draft proposal was shared with Albanian authorities for their consideration on September 2020 and finalization of the modalities.

      The draft of this MoU will serve as basis for other third countries arrangements on the coexistence of complaints mechanisms, such as the case for Montenegro.”

      An extra article 3

      The agreements with Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia contain an article not included in the agreements with Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. From article 3, on launching an action:

      “The Agency may propose launching an action to the competent authorities of [the host state].

      The competent authorities of [the host state] may also request the Agency to consider launching an action.”

      The launching of any action requires the consent of competent authorities of the host-state and of Frontex (Article 3(2) of the status agreements), while any disputes over the content of the status agreements shall be resolved between the non-EU state in question and the European Commission (Article 11).

      Privileges and immunities of the members of the team

      Members of teams deployed in each of the host states shall enjoy immunity from the criminal, civil and administrative jurisdiction of the host state, for all acts carried out in the exercise of official functions, where these are committed in the course of actions contained in the operational plan (articles 6 or 7). It is at the discretion of the executive director of Frontex (currently Fabrice Leggeri) to determine whether acts were committed in the course of actions following the operational plan. This immunity may be waived by the team members’ home state – that is to say, the state of nationality of a Frontex team member, such as Spain or Germany.

      While the agreements with Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia include the provision that the executive director’s decision will be binding upon the authorities of the host state, no such article is found in the agreements with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

      A further difficulty with this article was highlighted earlier this year in an internal Frontex report: Protocol No 7 annexed to the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) and to the TFEU, under which the privileges and immunities Agency and its statutory staff are covered, is not applicable outside of the EU. The Commission has not yet responded to a request for comment on an investigation said to be underway into this issue.

      Acting on behalf of the host non-EU state

      Across the status agreements, members of the teams are limited to performing tasks and exercising powers in the host territory in the presence and under instructions of the host state’s border guards or other relevant authorities. The host state may authorise members of teams to act on its behalf, taking into consideration the views of the agency via its coordinating officer. The agreement with Serbia contains extra emphasis (article 5):

      “the competent authority of the Republic of Serbia may authorise members of the teams to act on its behalf as long as the overall responsibility and command and control functions remain with the border guards or other police officers of the Republic of Serbia present at all times.”

      This agreement also emphasises that “the members of the team referred to in paragraphs 1 and 3 to 6 do not include agency staff”.

      Members of teams shall be authorised to use force, including service weapons as permitted by the host state, home state, and Frontex. Each host state may authorise members of the team to use force in the absence of border guards or other relevant staff under article 4 (6) – Albania and Bosnia and Herzegoviina – or 5 (6) – Montenegro,

      Access to databases

      The agreements with Albania and Montenegro allow the host state to authorise members of the team to consult national databases if necessary for the operational aims or for return operations. Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s status agreements are more cautious, allowing certain data from national databases to be shared at the request of a member of the team, provided it is needed to fulfil operational aims as outlined in the operational plan. The agreement with Serbia contains, once more, additional provisions: “members of the team may be communicated only information concerning relevant facts which is necessary for performing their tasks and exercising their powers”, though it also includes in the subsequent paragraph:

      “For the purposes of fulfilling operational aims specified in the operation plan and the implementing actions, the competent authority of the Republic of Serbia and members of the team may exchange other information and findings”.

      Language on discrimination

      The agreement with Serbia once again follows slightly different wording to the others in terms of the prohibition of discrimination. The agreements with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and North Macedonia recite:

      “While performing their tasks and exercising their powers, they shall not arbitrarily discriminate against persons on any grounds including sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

      However, the agreement with Serbia does not include (https://www.statewatch.org/news/2017/july/eu-frontex-in-the-balkans-serbian-government-rejects-eu-s-criminal-immun) any reference to gender identity.

      Obligation to give evidence as witnesses in criminal proceedings

      Under each of the agreements with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Serbia, members of the team shall not be obliged to give evidence as witnesses. Not only does the agreement with Montenegro omit this provision, it also outlines:

      “Members of the team who are witnesses may be obliged by the competent authorities of Montenegro, while respecting paragraphs 3 and 4, to provide evidence through a statement and in accordance with the procedural law of Montenegro.”

      Frontex and home state obligation not to jeopardise criminal proceedings

      The agreement with Serbia is the only agreement not to include an obligation on the agency and home state of a team member to “refrain from taking any measure likely to jeopardise possible subsequent criminal prosecution of the member of the team by the competent authorities” of the host non-EU state.

      Lingering uncertainty

      On top of uncertainty over when the agreements with North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina might be completed, questions remain regarding the accessibility of complaints mechanisms and the application of rules governing privileges and immunity of team members, even in Albania and Montenegro, where operations have been launched already.

      Additionally, since the entry into force of its new regulation in 2019 and the removal of provisions limiting Frontex’s extra-EU operations only to neighbouring states, the EU can now conclude status agreements with countries not bordering the EU. The implementation of these agreements, as well as their contents, will likely set a precedent for negotiations and operations further afield.

      https://www.statewatch.org/analyses/2021/briefing-external-action-frontex-operations-outside-the-eu
      #Albanie #Monténégro #Serbie #Bosnie #Bosnie-Herzégovine #buffer-zone #zone-tampon

    • Albania: dealing with a new migration framework on the edge of the empire

      In 2014, Albania was formally accepted as a candidate for membership to the EU. The country is aiming to approximate its domestic law with the EU legal ’acquis’ within the next two years, prompting big changes in the country’s immigration and asylum system - at least on paper. Currently, those systems cannot be said to meet fundamental rights or EU legal standards, but given conditions within the EU itself - notably in Greece - it remains to be seen whether this will be a barrier to Albania joining the bloc.

      Background

      In the 1990s Albania, a small country in the middle of the Balkans, was just emerging from a harsh communist dictatorship. In 1991, a new era in Europe began for the country, as it opened diplomatic relationships with the then-European Community. But it was not until 2014 that Albania was formally accepted as a candidate for membership of the EU, following the endorsement of the European Council.[1]

      In that time, the European Community had evolved into the fortress of the European Union, its borders and expansion reminiscent of the spread of the Roman Empire. Speaking of the EU’s borders, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has even commented, “big empires go down if the external borders are not well-protected”.[2] Since 2014, Albania has been racing to fulfil all the requirements needed to be accepted among the fabulous 27, making major changes in the five main areas identified by the EU: public administration, rule of law, tackling corruption, organised crime and fundamental rights.

      In February 2018, the European Commission declared that further enlargement to encompass the states of the ‘Western Balkans’ (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo) would be “an investment in the EU’s security, economic growth and influence and in its ability to protect its citizens”.[3] In short, the EU was presenting a so-called win-win agreement, where all sides stand to gain.

      In March 2020 – following a limping reform of the justice system, some destabilizing stop-and-go of talks between the EU and Albania, a gloomy summer election crisis in 2019, German concerns, a temporary French veto and a devastating earthquake in November 2019 – the EU finally said ‘I do’ and committed to opening accession negotiations with Albania, in a statement that underscored the need to ‘keep an eye’ on the country:

      “The Council further invites the Commission to continue to monitor the progress and compliance in all areas related to the opening of negotiations and to carry out and complete the process of analytical examination of the EU acquis with the country, starting with the fundamentals’ cluster”.[4]

      Aligning Albania with the EU’s “area of freedom, security and justice”

      The current ‘Project Plan for European integration 2020-2022’[5] lists all the legislative reforms and changes required to align Albanian and EU law. The full approximation of Albanian law with that of the European Union, and its full and effective implementation, is one of the criteria for membership. Indeed, the process of membership negotiations is in itself that process of approximation.

      The process involves the following steps: analysis of EU legislation; identification of deficiencies or contradictory acts of Albanian law; drafting or reviewing of the approximated Albanian acts; and monitoring the implementation of approximated legislation. The 24th chapter of the plan, on “justice, freedom and security”, focuses on: border control; visas; external migration; asylum; police cooperation; the fight against organised crime and terrorism; cooperation on drugs issues; customs; and judicial cooperation in criminal and civil matters.

      Following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the area of Freedom, Security and Justice is regulated in Title V of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, running from Article 67 to Article 89.[6] This covers secondary legislation on: border checks, asylum and immigration; police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters; judicial cooperation in civil matters; and police cooperation. Primary and secondary legislation is complemented by a large body of jurisprudence of the Court of Justice of the EU, whose primacy is a cornerstone principle of EU law. The acquis inherited by Albania for this specific chapter consists of a volume of 392 acts, divided into a “hard acquis” (which derives from binding acts such as treaties, directives, regulations, etc.) and a “soft acquis” (which derives from standards, principles and recommendations of EU or other relevant international organizations).

      Updating the laws on immigration and borders

      The government affirms to have completed and adopted a comprehensive national cross-sectoral migration strategy, included a new strategy on the diaspora for the period 2018-2024.[7] The government also says it has updated a contingency plan for a possible massive influx of migrants and asylum seekers, expected to be approved soon. But the other side of the coin is that Albania, as the project plan admits, is largely unprepared to host and protect migrants on its territory. Albania currently has one reception centre for irregular migrants in Karreç, with a capacity of only 150 beds. The centre was visited in September 2019 by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which found it to be inadequate in many respects.[8] Even more concerning is the lack of facilities for unaccompanied minors.

      According to a footnote in a 2016 law,[9] Albania’s border control legislation has been aligned with the Schengen Borders Code.[10] However, it appears that the wider legal framework for managing Albania’s external borders is not yet fully in line with EU standards. The government reports that the implementation of the integrated border management strategy and action plan is proceeding: the reconstruction of the two border crossing points Hani i Hotit and Morina has been completed; the country has signed a protocol with Montenegro on the establishment of joint checkpoints; the trilateral centre in Plav (in Northern Macedonia) has become operational; an agreement with Kosovo on the joint border crossing point in Morina has been concluded; anti-corruption preventive measures have been implemented at border crossing points through the installation of cameras; and cooperation between agencies and neighbouring countries has improved.

      Frontex: already on the scene

      The section of the government’s report on regular and irregular immigration states that the agreement with the EU permitting the deployment of Frontex officials on Albanian territory was finalised in February 2019.[11] The deployment began on 22 May 2019, for an indefinite period.[12]

      The joint operation – Frontex’s first outside the EU – deploys 50 EU officers in Albania to “help Albanian authorities with border surveillance and border checks… They will also assist their Albanian counterparts in screening of migrants”.[13] This is not the first time that an EU presence has been active on Albanian territory – an Italian operation in 1997 sought to prevent migration, and there have also been monitoring missions. However, the Frontex presence is an executive mission, marking a more active departure from the monitoring exercises of the past.[14]

      The Albanian Minister of Internal Affairs, Sander Lleshaj, has described the operation as “really effective, very collaborative… crucial in the way to EU integration”.[15] The Prime Minister, Edi Rama, has said the operation makes Albania a contributor to the EU in countering illegal migration and organised crime.[16] The Albanian press has so far expressed an uncritical view of the Frontex mission. In a state where many are supportive of EU accession, appetite for critical investigation is possibly low.

      And asylum?

      Albania reports that its Asylum Law is partially in line with the EU acquis. The country has the necessary institutions and procedures to handle asylum applications. Complaints can be filed with the National Commission for Refugees and Asylum, which was established in 2017 and reopened in 2019. All relevant national legislation should be publicly available on the government website,[17] but the information available does not clarify if complaints related to the application process are admissible, or if the word “complaints” refers to appeals related to unsuccessful applications. Regarding the asylum procedure, applications are registered by the Border and Migration Police by filling out the pre-screening forms, then reported to the Directorate of Asylum and Citizenship to proceed with the status determination procedures.

      Although the number of asylum seekers increased significantly in 2018, with 5,730 arrivals, the authorities say they have responded to the large number of asylum applications. According to UNHCR asylum applications that year increased to 4,378, a 14-fold increase compared to 2017.[18] Albania’s official Gazette outlined in March 2020 that the number of people applying for asylum was at its highest in 2018, and 40 times higher than it had been in 2015.[19] According to the Project Plan for European integration, an asylum database has been functioning since April 2019; it serves as an integral data centre between the Directorate of Asylum and Citizenship, the Directorate of Border and Migration and the National Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers, exchanging information in real time between these institutions and enabling the completion of procedures as well as the issuance of statistics.

      The government also says it tripled its reception capacity for asylum seekers in October 2017. Total reception capacity, including the national reception centre in Tirana and the temporary accommodation centres in Gjirokastra and Korça, reaches almost 380 places. In October 2019, a new centre with a reception capacity of 60 beds was inaugurated to cope with the expected increase of people needing temporary housing in Kapshticë/Korça,[20] which has the same parameters as the transit centre in Gërhot of Gjirokastra.

      Summary

      Both Albania and the EU have undergone a transformative thirty years, with talks of accession beginning six years ago. The EU sees Albania’s incorporation into the bloc as a way of contributing to the economic growth and strengthened security; a different understanding of “expanding the fortress”. Accession negotiations were reinvigorated in March 2020, and the current goal is for Albania to approximate its law to the EU acquis, and implement those measures, within two years. This includes legislation on immigration and borders, which have been updated on paper. Though conditions for asylum seekers and migrants in Albania are not in line with fundamental rights law or the EU acquis, nor are those in EU member states – most notably the Greek island hotspots. The deployment of the EU’s border agency in Albania, unlikely to be criticised locally, represents further step in the EU’s mission to control migration across a wider terrain.

      Sara Ianovitz, Ph.D. in International Law

      https://www.statewatch.org/analyses/2020/albania-dealing-with-a-new-migration-framework-on-the-edge-of-the-empire

      #Albanie

    • Foreign agents and violence against migrants at the Greek-Macedonian border

      An increasing number of reports of violent pushbacks at the Greek-Macedonian border have been collected by volunteers in recent years. Some reports allege the presence of Frontex, but bilateral policing deals in place may also explain the presence of foreign officers in Macedonia. The violence underpins a long-standing plan to close the ‘Balkan Route’ and keep people out of ‘core’ EU territory. Whoever is behind the violence, there is no shortage of border guards to mete it out – but justice is in short supply.

      Midnight in Macedonia

      Around midnight on 14 August last year, a group of some 20 people were intercepted by border police just north of the Greek-Macedonian border, near the small town of Gevgelija. What happened next, according to the testimony of one member of the group, makes for grim reading.

      “[T]he police officers approached the group and became physically violent. The officers struck various group-members with their batons. Others were pepper-sprayed, including the women and children. After this, the officers loaded the group into a van and left them there without any air conditioning, jammed, soaking in sweat for around two hours, while going about to catch more transit groups. In the end, they squashed around 40 people in a van for fit for ten persons.”[1]

      Macedonian officials were not the only ones involved in the operation. The testimony also recounts “foreign officers wearing uniforms with the European Union flags on their shoulders,” the distinctive mark of EU border agency Frontex.

      Foreign agents

      The testimony is one of five reports gathered by Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), altogether involving some 130 people, that describe violence being meted out in the presence of, or even by, border guards allegedly deployed by Frontex on North Macedonian territory. A further 10 reports gathered by the network, encompassing some 123 people, recount the use of violence by foreign border guards and police officers operating in North Macedonia, but do not mention uniforms bearing the EU flag.[2]

      Statewatch and Border Violence Monitoring Network have written to Frontex to demand an investigation into the allegations recounted in this article. Read more here.

      The violence recounted in those testimonies is shocking. According to the report on the 14 August incident, after cramming people into the van, the police drove them to the banks of the Vardar river. There, they threw peoples’ possessions into the water, took their phones and money, and “the group was beaten brutally with metal electroshock batons and some people were thrown into the river by the police. One person was thrown in despite crying and begging not to be thrown in.” They were subsequently taken back to the border and pushed through a gate leading to the Greek side, while police beat them with electroshock batons.

      In that incident, the witness said that officials with uniforms bearing EU flags were present, but did not directly participate in the violence. But a report from the same area, concerning an incident less than a week later, refers to officials in uniforms bearing Croatian, Slovenian, Czech and EU flags, who bound a group of four men with zip ties and beat three of them with batons (one of the group, who was a minor, was spared the beating).[3] Reports of other incidents allege the presence of Italian, German and Austrian officials.

      No reports at Frontex

      While BVMN volunteers have gathered multiple testimonies that allege Frontex’s presence or involvement in violence in North Macedonia, the agency itself says it has received no reports of any such incidents. The agency also denies any presence in the country – in May, a press officer told Statewatch that “Frontex does not have any operational activities at the land border from the North Macedonian side,” and “is only present on the Greek side of the border.”

      In December 2020, Frontex responded to an access to documents request filed by Statewatch some months earlier. The request sought copies of all serious incident reports (SIRs) concerning the agency’s activities at the Greek-Macedonian land border from 1 January 2020 onwards. SIRs are supposed to be filed by officials deployed on Frontex operations for a variety of reasons, including in case of “suspected violations of fundamental rights or international protection obligations.”[4]

      In its response, the agency said that it did not hold any SIRs concerning the geographic area and time period covered by the request. This does not mean, however, that the incidents recorded by BVMN did not take place – it may simply be that nobody is reporting them.

      A working group set up by Frontex’s own Management Board, in response to allegations of involvement in pushbacks in Greece, found numerous problems with the agency’s reporting system. It noted that there was no way of monitoring the quality of reports submitted, and there were no confidential avenues for team members to report rights violations by their colleagues.

      The report also called for “a newly introduced culture,” suggesting that the existing ambience at the agency is not one in which the rights of migrants and refugees are at the forefront of officials’ minds. The working group said that the agency needed “awareness of and sensitiveness towards possible misconduct,”[5] a call it repeated in its final report.[6]

      Not even numbers

      Serious incident reports may not exist, but the request from Statewatch to Frontex also sought to establish the scale of the agency’s activities at the Greek-Macedonian border through another means – by requesting data on the number of migrants and migrant smugglers apprehended at the Greek-Macedonian border over the same period (1 January 2020 onwards).

      This data, argued Frontex, could not be released – doing so “would jeopardize the work of law enforcement officials and pose a hazard to the course of ongoing and future operations aimed at curtailing the activities of such networks,” despite the request seeking nothing more than figures that Frontex itself has published in previous reports.

      A public evaluation of the tongue-twistingly titled ‘Joint Operation Flexible Operational Activities 2018 Land on Border Surveillance’ (JO FOA Land) says that in 2018, 16,337 migrants and 313 smugglers were apprehended in the area covered by the operation – “the ‘green borders’ of Greece with Turkey, the North Macedonia [sic] and Albania, Bulgaria with Turkey, North Macedonia and Serbia.”[7] Yet for reasons known only to Frontex, providing a breakdown of these figures for the Greek-Macedonian border would apparently undermine public security.

      A significant presence

      According to Frontex’s evaluation report, 25 member states took part in operations at land borders in south-eastern Europe in 2018, along with 47 officers acting as observers from six different “third countries”, namely Georgia, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Moldova, Serbia and Ukraine. Over 1,800 officials were deployed by Frontex over the course of the year. The operations recorded 2,011 “incidents”.

      A substantial Frontex presence at the border between Greece and North Macedonia has been in place since then. In a response to a parliamentary question from German MEP Özlem Demirel, the European Commission said last June that at Greece’s land borders with Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Turkey, 71 officials, 24 patrols and three “thermo-vision vans” were deployed as part of the 2020 edition of JO FOA Land. Thirteen different member states were providing contributions to the operation: Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Spain.[8]

      While Frontex denies any physical presence on North Macedonia territory, the testimonies gathered by BVMN that allege the presence or participation of Frontex officials in violent acts raise serious questions for the agency. All the testimonies concern incidents that took place in North Macedonia, where the agency has no legal basis to operate. An agreement between the EU and North Macedonia that would permit Frontex deployments, similar to those currently in place with Montenegro and Albania, is facing hold-ups due to objections from the Bulgarian authorities.[9]

      Bilateral agreements

      Frontex operations are not the only deployments of foreign officials in North Macedonia. As noted above, nine of the 15 reports gathered by BVMN describing the involvement of non-Macedonian officers in pushbacks to Greece make no mention of Frontex at all. There are, however, multiple references to violence being meted out by officials in uniforms bearing the flags of Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany and Serbia.

      The presence of some of these officials in the country is made possible by bilateral border control agreements. North Macedonia has cooperation agreements with eight other states in the region (Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Serbia), who provide the Macedonian authorities “with assistance from foreign police officers in patrolling the south border with Greece and in performing their daily duties.”[10] The agreement with Austria, Hungary and Serbia has come in for particular criticism, as it is a memorandum of understanding rather than a formal agreement, and therefore has faced no parliamentary scrutiny in Macedonia.[11] Germany, meanwhile, does not appear to have such a formal agreement with North Macedonia at the federal level – which makes the allegations of the presence of German officers puzzling – but the EU’s largest state has provided a ready supply of equipment, including vehicles, mobile thermal imaging cameras, boots and torches.[12]

      The Croatian and Czech governments have made extensive deployments under these agreements. Between December 2015 (when Croatia and North Macedonia signed a police cooperation deal) and February 2019 “over 560 Croatian police… intercepted almost 6,000 illegal migrants in North Macedonia.”[13] The Czech deployments have been even larger – by December 2019, “1,147 police officers [had] been sent to North Macedonia” to police the border with Greece, according to the Czech government.[14]

      High-level police coordination preceded the signing of many of these agreements. In July 2016, the police chiefs of 12 states said that “the deployment of foreign police officers along borders which are strongly affected by irregular migration conveys a strong message that the countries concerned are resolute in jointly coping with the migration crisis.”[15] Under the agreements with Macedonia, foreign officials can “use technical equipment and vehicles with symbols, wear uniforms, carry weapons and other means of coercion”.[16] In some instances, it seems coercion tips over into outright violence.

      An incident dating from 16 August 2020, recorded by BVMN volunteers, refers to officers “with black ski masks over their faces” and “Croatian and Czech flags emblazoned on their uniforms.” The interviewees said that “these officers were violent with them – kicking the group, destroying their mobile phones, taking their money, insulting them, pushing their faces on the ground with tied hands behind the back. One of the respondents was also attacked by a dog, while the officers [were] laughing at him.”[17] As far back as March 2016, an activist supporting refugees at the increasingly well-guarded Greek-Macedonian border told the newspaper Lidovky that, in Macedonia, “the Czech police are known for violence and unprofessionalism.”[18]

      Buffer states in the Balkans

      Bilateral cooperation between EU states and North Macedonia extends far beyond these police cooperation agreements. In September 2020, the German Presidency of the Council of the EU described the region stretching from Turkey to Hungary (known in official jargon as the “Eastern Mediterranean/Western Balkans”) as being “of great strategic importance for the EU in terms of migration management.”[19] Significant attention is therefore being given to reinforcing the ability of states in the region to control peoples’ movements (an issue highlighted in another recent Statewatch report).

      As of May 2020, 15 EU member states were providing bilateral “support” on migration issues to states in the Western Balkans through a total of 228 activities, according to a survey carried out by the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU. The majority of that support was focused on control measures, “namely border management and combating the smuggling of migrants (over 50% of all MS activities),” said a summary produced by the Presidency. More than 50% of the 228 activities were taking place in Serbia and North Macedonia, both of which border EU territory.[20]

      The Croatian Presidency highlighted the “geopolitical importance” of those two countries, given that “Member States’ focus is on the prevention of irregular migratory movements to the EU.” This was “both expected and understandable, but may contribute to strengthening the Western Balkan partners’ self-perception as a transit region, which poses a challenge for the further improvement of all aspects of their migration capacities.” Rather than a transit region, the plan is to provide ‘capacity-building’ and technical assistance to develop buffer states that can keep people out of the ‘core’ of the EU after they depart from Greece.

      This is, of course, not a new plan. In February and March 2016, as the EU-Turkey deal was heading for agreement and in the wake of the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people travelling by foot, road and rail to the ‘core’ of the EU, the ‘Balkan Route’ was declared closed by EU leaders. Initially done on the crude, discriminatory basis of nationality,[21] exclusion measures were extended to apply to all those crossing borders in the region. That process of closure continues today, and violence is a longstanding component of the strategy.[22] Indeed, it is a prerequisite for it to work effectively, and has been denounced repeatedly over the years by NGOs and international organisations. In March 2016, the Macedonian authorities sought supplies of pepper spray, tasers, rubber bullets, “special bomb (shock, with rubber balls)” and “acoustic device to break the mob.”[23] The concern now may be with smaller groups of people attempting to pass through the country, rather than with “the mob”, but the violence is no less brutal.

      https://www.statewatch.org/analyses/2021/foreign-agents-and-violence-against-migrants-at-the-greek-macedonian-bor