Europe Turning Away Migrants at Gunpoint


BRUSSELS, Oct 23 -- Weapons were pointed directly at migrants trying to enter Italy during a recent operation coordinated by the European Union's border control agency, it has been alleged.

In late September the French naval vessel Arago was taking part in an EU operation in the Mediterranean when it intercepted two boats carrying migrants.

While escorting the boats to the Italian island of Lampedusa, naval officers are reported to have kept their machine guns aimed at migrants throughout the journey.

Giusto Catania, an Italian member of the European Parliament, has described the use of weapons in this way as a "real scandal", contending that it is in breach of the mandate given to Frontex, the EU's border control agency.

Catania, who claims to have photographic evidence of the incident, argued that this use of weapons "creates a dangerous precedent" for future operations and highlights how Frontex is "concentrating more" on curbing clandestine immigration than on respecting the rights of people fleeing to Europe.

Located between Tunisia and Sicily, Lampedusa is used as a holding center for migrants, particularly from Africa. Over 6,500 landed on the island in the first six months of this year. About 400 others have drowned off its coast so far this year.

In July, Italy's right-leaning government, which has adopted a tough stance against immigration, announced a state of emergency over the large number of boats arriving on the country's shores.

An official with Frontex, which has its headquarters in Warsaw, said that the agency has "requested an explanation of the incident" that occurred last month.

To date, the only details it has been able to confirm are that shots were fired in the air by naval officers because unrest occurred when one of the boats was approached, "as often happens" during such operations, the official added. "The sea was rough and there was a danger that people could get really hurt, so shots were fired to calm them down. We are not aware of anything more than that."

Since it was declared operational in 2005, the powers and resources of Frontex have expanded considerably. At 70 million euros (90 million dollars), its budget this year is more than three times what it was in 2006. And under rules that came into force in 2007, it can dispatch teams of border guards to EU countries encountering an upsurge in the number of migrants hoping to enter their territory. So far, though, none of these squads, known as RABIT (Rapid Border Intervention Teams), have been deployed.

Frontex has also faced several allegations that its operations have flouted international standards. Earlier in September, the agency announced that it was conducting a joint investigation with Greek authorities into claims that human rights were violated during operations in the Aegean Sea.

This followed a litany of complaints against Greece over its lax approach to refugee law. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has berated Athens for systematically rejecting bids for asylum. Of 20,000 asylum applications lodged in Greece during 2007, only seven were granted.

The European Council on Refugees and Exile (ECRE), an alliance of groups working on behalf of asylum seekers, believes Frontex does not have a sufficiently comprehensive remit, as it does not address asylum issues.

"Frontex has stated that its activities to date have led to a considerable decrease in the number of irregular entries into the EU, presenting it as a success and a factor that contributes to saving human lives," said ECRE's Ana Fontal. "The number of irregular entrants into the EU may have decreased overall, but at what price? Does Frontex know how many of these people may have been seeking international protection? Were any able to access an asylum procedure, and where? What has happened to them now?"

Amnesty International is due to have discussions with Frontex next week.

Kris Pollet, a justice and home affairs specialist at Amnesty's Brussels office, said that this incident "needs to be investigated thoroughly", adding that the use of weapons in an operation designed to control borders would appear to be "disproportionate".

In a paper published last year, the Belgian League of Human Rights complained that by narrowing the focus of the agency's activities to border control, Frontex is ill-equipped to deal with situations where it intercepts vessels carrying asylum seekers.

Pollet added that it is "very worrying" that the mandate given to Frontex by EU governments is limited to border control issues and "doesn't mention the protection of human rights as such."

He argued that it is vital that this omission be remedied and that steps be taken to ensure that officers taking part in its operations are given training on human rights issues. Because most of the agency's activities are at sea, they are "very difficult for us to monitor," he said.

Gilles Van Moortel, a spokesman for the UNHCR, said that his organization provides training to Frontex officials on refugee protection. But he added: "Frontex is only a coordinating body. We don't have the capacity to give training to all the coastal forces of the EU."

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