On a late evening August flight last year from Munich to Afghanistan, an Afghan man seated in the back of the plane struggled to breath as a German escort officer repeatedly squeezed his testicles.
The man, along with another Afghan who had tried to kill himself, was being forcibly removed from Germany and sent back to a country engulfed in war.
The EU’s border agency Frontex coordinated and helped pay for the forced return operation, as part of a broader bid to remove from Europe unwanted migrants and others whose applications for international protection had been rejected.
By then, almost 20 years of war and civil conflict had already ravaged Afghanistan - with 2018 registering its worst-ever civilian death rate since counting had started.
Also seated on the plane for the 14 August flight were independent observers of the anti-torture committee (CPT) of the human rights watchdog, the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe.
In a report, they describe in detail how six escort officers had surrounded the terrified man in an effort to calm him.
The ’calming’ techniques involved an officer pulling the man’s neck from behind while yanking his nose upwards.
His hands and legs had been cuffed and a helmet placed on him. Another knelt on the man’s knees and upper legs, using his full weight to keep him seated.
After 15 minutes, the kneeling officer “then gripped the returnee’s genitals with his left hand and repeatedly squeezed them for prolonged periods.”
Another 503 have been sent to Afghanistan in flights coordinated by Frontex since the start of this year.
Vicki Aken, the International Rescue Committee’s Afghanistan country director, says those returned are invariably put in harm’s way.
“You cannot say that Kabul is ’conflict-free’. Kabul is actually one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan,” she said, noting Afghanistan has the highest number of child casualties in the world.
The day after the Munich flight landed on 14 August 2018, a blast ripped through a high school in the capital city, Kabul, killing 48 people, including over 30 students.
The flight journey from Munich highlights a stunning omission from Frontex responsibilities - adding to concerns the EU agency is failing to maintain standards when it comes to coordinating forced-returns in a humane manner.
For one, all return operations must be monitored in accordance with EU law, and a forced-return monitor is required to deliver a report to Frontex and to all the member states involved.
Such reports, handed over to Frontex’s executive director, are supposed to act as an internal check and balance to stem alleged abuse by escort guards in a system that has been in place since the start of 2017.
These monitors come from a “pool of forced-return monitors”, as required under the 2016 European Border and Coast Guard Regulation and the 2008 Return Directive, and are broadly sourced from the member states themselves.
The CPT in their report noted that the flight on 14 August 2018 had also been monitored by Frontex staff itself, and concluded that its “current arrangements cannot be considered as an independent external monitoring mechanism”.
When the agency compiled its own internal report spanning the latter half of 2018, which included the 14 August flight, no mention was made of the Afghan man who had been manhandled by six officers.
Asked to explain, the Warsaw-based agency whose annual budget for 2020 is set to increase to €420.6m, has yet to respond to Euobserver.
Instead, the report, which had been written up by Frontex’s fundamental rights officer, highlighted other issues.
It demanded escorts not place restraints on children. It said minors who are alone cannot be sent back on a forced-return flight, which is exactly what had happened on two other operations.
No one on the 14 August flight had issued a “serious incident report” label, used by Frontex whenever a particularly bad incident has been deemed to have transpired.
During 2018 Frontex coordinated and helped fund 345 such return operations, by charter flights during which only one “serious incident report” was filed - posing questions on the reliability and independence of the monitors and return escorts, as well as the sincerity of internal Frontex efforts to stem any abuse.
The accountability gap was highlighted by the outgoing head of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, who in his farewell speech earlier this month, deliberately singled out Frontex.
“Frontex is bound by EU laws that prohibit torture and any form of inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” he said, in reference to reports of alleged human rights violations that occurred during Frontex support operations observed since mid-2018.
Monitoring the monitors
For Markus Jaeger, a Council of Europe official who advises the Frontex management board, the agency’s monitoring system for forced return is meaningless.
“The internal system of Frontex produces close to nil reports on serious incidents, in other words, the internal system of Frontex, says there is never a human rights incident,” he told EUobserver, earlier this month.
He said Frontex’s pool of 71 monitors is overstretched and that in some cases, only one is available for a flight that might have 150 people being returned.
“One monitor doesn’t suffice,” he said, noting Frontex has been able to delegate any blame onto member states, by positioning itself merely as a coordinator.
But as Frontex expands - with the ability to lease planes, pilots and staff - its direct involvement with the returns also increases and so does its accountability, says Jaeger.
“The [return] figures are supposedly going up, the capacity is supposedly going up, the procedures are being shortened, and deportations are going to happen by deployed guest officers and or by Frontex officers and so the independence of the monitors is crucial,” he pointed out.
For its part, the European Commission says Frontex’s pool of monitors is set to expand.
Jaeger, along with other national authorities from a handful of member states, which already contribute to Frontex’s pool of monitors, are now putting together a new group to keep the forced-returns organised by Frontex better in check.
Known as the Nafplion Group, and set up as a pilot project last October by the Greek ombudsman, it describes itself as a “remedy to the absence of an external, independent governance of the pool of forced-return monitors” in Frontex forced-return flights.
The plan is to get it up and running before the end of the year, despite having no guarantee they will ever be selected by Frontex to help monitor a forced-return flight.
“This is how de facto the Nafplion Group can be avoided,” said Jaeger, noting that they plan to go public should they not be picked.
Asked to comment, the European Commission says it is not in discussions with any institutions on the establishment of a new, parallel monitoring system.