EU data authority warns Frontex of action over migrant interview breaches

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The European Union’s border and coast guard agency is collecting information from migrants that could end up identifying vulnerable people seeking sanctuary from persecution in their homelands, according to a report by the EU’s data protection supervisor.

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The agency, Frontex, said Thursday that it conducts “debriefing interviews” with migrants entering Europe without authorization “on a voluntary and anonymous basis.” It said the interviews aim to collect information about migratory routes and cross-border crime and help to plan its operations.

But in a report submitted to Frontex last week, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) said that some debriefings reveal “a combination of distinguishing features about that individual and their journey that would be sufficient to render those individuals identifiable.”

The data protection supervisor said this means the information gathered would amount to “personal data” under EU laws, and it has “serious doubts” about whether the debriefings respect the regulations relating to such data.

The EDPS said Frontex’s interview process “does not take sufficient account of the high vulnerability of the individuals targeted for data collection.”

It also insisted that Frontex “cannot guarantee the voluntary nature of the interview as they are conducted in a situation of deprivation (or limitation) of liberty, and are aimed at identifying suspects on the basis of the interviewee’s testimony.”

It added that the debriefings “may result in the interviewee providing a self-incriminating testimony.”

The data protection supervisor is demanding that Frontex address many of its concerns by the end of this year. “The EDPS will carry out a close follow-up. If need be, enforcement powers may be exercised,” it said in an executive summary to the audit report posted on its website.

Frontex welcomed the report “as a contribution to further improve the agency’s activities in line with data protection regulations and fundamental rights.” It said it would try “to comply with the recommendations and develop an action plan to implement the necessary changes in our operations.”

In recent years, Frontex has been repeatedly accused of taking part in illegal pushbacks of migrants and other abuses - allegations it denies. A new director was appointed in January after his predecessor resigned and promised a new era of transparency at the agency.

The new director, Hans Leijtens, said that “there is nothing secret about Frontex” and that he would promote a nothing-to-hide approach and put an end to “defensive attitudes.” Leijtens said: “We can’t do our work when we are not trusted.”

Pushbacks - forcing people away from a border before they can exercise their right to apply for asylum - are considered violations of international refugee protection agreements. Under those rules, people should not be expelled or returned to a country where their life and safety might be in danger due to their race, religion, nationality, or membership of a social or political group.

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