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EU border chief wins support amid migrant pushback reports

December 9, 2020 GMT
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European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson speaks during a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The European Commission wants member states to reinforce external border controls and police cooperation to better protect the 27-nation bloc from extremist attacks. (Stephanie Lecocq, Pool via AP)
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European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson speaks during a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The European Commission wants member states to reinforce external border controls and police cooperation to better protect the 27-nation bloc from extremist attacks. (Stephanie Lecocq, Pool via AP)

BRUSSELS (AP) — The EU’s top migration official confirmed Wednesday that she retains confidence in the embattled head of Frontex, amid pressure on the bloc’s border and coastguard agency for an independent investigation of allegations it was involved in illegal pushbacks of migrants.

Asked whether she still has confidence in Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri, European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said simply “yes,” without elaborating.

Frontex has come under the spotlight over a media investigation which alleges that video and other publicly available data suggest the agency’s “assets were actively involved in one pushback incident at the Greek-Turkish maritime border in the Aegean Sea.”

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The report said personnel from the agency, which monitors and polices migrant movements around Europe’s borders, were present at another incident and “have been in the vicinity of four more since March.” Frontex launched an internal probe after the report in October, but Leggeri said early this month that, so far, it had found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Pushbacks — the act of forcibly stopping people seeking asylum from entering a country -- are considered contrary to international refugee protection agreements, which say people shouldn’t be expelled or returned to a country where their life and safety might be in danger due to their race, religion, nationality or being members of a social or political group.

Johansson said the allegations are “not acceptable, and they have to be investigated and clarified.”

Some EU lawmakers say they have lost confidence in Leggeri and want him to resign.

The allegations are extremely embarrassing for the European Commission. In September it unveiled sweeping new reforms to the EU’s asylum system, which proved dismally inadequate when over 1 million migrants arrived in 2015, many of them Syrian refugees reaching the Greek islands via Turkey.

Included in the reforms is a system of independent monitoring by rights experts to ensure that there are no pushbacks at Europe’s borders.

“The European Union will remain, always, an asylum destination,” said commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, who helped draft the reforms. “Everyone who wishes to file an asylum claim has to have the right to do it.”

The 2015 migrant surge sparked one of Europe’s deepest crises as countries bickered over how best to manage the arrivals. Entries have dropped to a relative trickle in recent years, although many migrants still languish on Greek islands waiting for their asylum claims to be processed, or to be sent back.