The human rights chief of the European Union border agency said last year that it should stop operating in Greece because of serial abuses by Greek border guards, including violently pushing asylum seekers back to Turkey and separating migrant children from their parents, according to confidential documents reviewed by The New York Times.
The E.U. agency, Frontex, deploys border guards from around Europe to help the Greek authorities with border operations, and provides equipment such as helicopters, boats and drones paid for by European taxpayers.
Instead of following the recommendation, taking legal action against Greece or investigating the findings, the E.U. set up an obscure “working group.” In a follow-up finding submitted last month, the rights chief said that there had been “no change in the reported practice.”
The reticence to act highlights a major tension in Europe’s migration policy: how to keep the number of migrants low while adhering to European laws.
The bloc’s rules protect the right of people to be given a chance to apply for asylum, and oblige E.U. nations to uphold that right.
But the arrival of more than one million refugees, mostly from Syria in 2015-2016, recast politics across Europe, pushing even traditionally progressive E.U. countries to the right and fueling the rise of identity politics.
After several years with fewer migrant arrivals in the E.U., angst over migration is now back.
Almost five million people, a record number, sought protection in the bloc last year. The vast majority, some four million, were Ukrainians who came through legal routes and were immediately granted the right to stay and work.
The remaining approximately 800,000 asylum seekers, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, arrived in the bloc via unofficial routes, including the Greek-Turkish border.
In this political environment, the drive to keep down the number of arrivals has intensified, often trumping commitments to legal and human-rights protections, and becoming a priority over and above putting in place a shared, functioning policy.
“Among member states, there is currently no other consensus than on border control,” said Camino Mortera-Martínez, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform. “The debate on common asylum policy is going nowhere, so countries on external borders are left to their own devices.” The case of Greece is emblematic of these complex dynamics.