BRUSSELS — A European Union court on Wednesday dismissed a first-of-its-kind case brought by a Syrian family alleging unlawful deportation by E.U.’s Frontex, with the court saying the border agency is not empowered to weigh in on “return decisions.”
The court decision comes amid growing concern about rights abuses at Europe’s borders and an increasingly hostile climate for migrants and asylum seekers around the world.
This was the first action for damages against Frontex to be brought before the General Court of the European Union, which is part of the Court of Justice of the European Union. If it had been successful, it would have been the first case that found the agency responsible for human rights violations, said Mariana Gkliati, an assistant professor of migration and asylum law at the Netherlands’ Tilburg University.
The family — a father, mother and their four young children — arrived in Greece in the fall of 2016, during Europe’s previous migration surge. They filed for asylum and received confirmation that the claim was registered.
Less than two weeks later, they were taken to a police station, then bundled onto a plane without explanation, according to their lawyer.
“We thought we were going to Athens,” the father said this week in a telephone interview. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing concerns about their privacy.
On the plane, the family was flanked by guards and separated. They did not understand what was happening, the father said.
It was not until they landed that they realized they had been deported to Turkey. “I was surprised to see the Turkish flag from the window,” the father recalled. The family was then detained.
Given conditions in Turkey, they decided to flee to Iraq.
Lisa-Marie Komp, who represented the family on behalf of Prakken d’Oliveira Human Rights Lawyers, argued that Frontex is obliged to monitor compliance with human rights laws during missions with member states.
“You can’t just deport people to another country. Before someone can be deported, it must be assessed whether he or she needs asylum protection, and that has not happened here,” she said. “With this case, we want to make it clear that no one, including Frontex, is above the law.”
The court found that Frontex is not responsible for screening people being forcibly removed from the European Union. “It is the Member States alone that are competent to assess the merits of return decisions and to examine applications for international protection,” the court’s press release said.
Frontex welcomed the decision. “Today’s verdict affirms that while we assist EU countries with returns, Frontex does not have the power to assess the merits of return decisions,” said the agency in an emailed statement.
“Nevertheless,” the statement continued, “valuable insights gained from this case enable us to continuously improve our return procedures, ensuring that all individuals affected are treated with utmost respect.”
Though asylum seekers, rights groups, lawyers and journalists have long documented unlawful deportations from Europe, it has been difficult to hold E.U. institutions accountable in court.
In some cases, families have been pushed out of the E.U. before having a chance to register their asylum claims, making it difficult to prove they were unlawfully deported.
In the case of the Syrian family, they received and retained proof that their asylum claim was registered in Greece, according to their lawyer. Their legal team was also able to confirm that they were taken from Greece on a joint Frontex-Greek flight.
The team behind the case said the decision raises questions about Frontex’s mandate and who, if anyone, can hold the agency to account.
“Frontex has great power over the lives of individuals, as the case of the Syrian family shows,” read a statement from Prakken d’Oliveira, the Dutch Council for Refugees and other groups backing the case.
“In a Union based on the rule of law, power must be accompanied by accountability,” the statement continued. “It is now up to political institutions, especially the European Commission, to clarify Frontex’s mandate.”
Salim reported from Baghdad.