For months, parliamentarians have investigated whether the European border agency Frontex was involved in illegal pushbacks of refugees in the Aegean Sea.
Frontex and its director Fabrice Leggeri only reacted to the allegations after much hesitation and finally rejected them.
The results of the investigation report, which are now available, are now doubly devastating: First, Frontex had evidence of the allegedly illegal pushbacks by Greek border guards, but the border protection agency remained inactive. Frontex has “failed to address and prevent violations of fundamental rights”. Secondly, especially Leggeri gets under the wheels. Among other things, he is said to have destroyed incriminating material. However, the allegations to his address go much further, the MEPs list his misconduct on a total of 17 pages.
Then there is a lack of a functioning framework for the exchange of information between Frontex and the EU member states, and the division of labor does not work either. The Commission, as guardian of the Treaties, and the European Council should monitor Frontex more closely, concludes the report.
“Billing with Leggeri”
The audit group of the EU Parliament is called “Frontex Scrutiny Working Group”, the chair is the Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola from the conservative EEP group. All political groups in the EU Parliament are represented in it – and the members find clear words. The report reads like a reckoning with Leggeri and"paints the picture of a director who is hardly interested in the observance of human rights at the EU’s external borders and does everything to cover up violations".
For example, the report’s final report states that Frontex has generally dismissed public reports of human rights violations at EU borders. Furthermore, the Agency did not respond adequately to internal information on alleged breaches of law. Then follows the criticism of the director of the border protection agency. Leggeri has ignored the opinions and requests of its Fundamental Rights officers and the Consultative Forum – both the Fundamental Rights Officers and the Consultative Forum are there to ensure that Frontex respects the rights of asylum seekers. It seems that these control mechanisms have worked – at least in this case. Until the reports and comments reached the Frontex director, who simply ignored them.
There have been numerous reports and reports of alleged violations of law in the Aegean. Nevertheless, Leggeri never fully considered ending the Frontex operation. He also did not consider how to prevent the human rights violations. The allegations of the parliamentarians go even further: “On the contrary, the Executive Director continues to claim that he is not aware of any information about violations of fundamental rights.”
“Horrific cover-up attempt”
The human rights violations in the Aegean, in which Frontex was involved, proceeded as follows: Frontex officials stop refugee boats even before they reach the Greek islands. They hand over the refugees to the Greek Coast Guard. These then systematically expose the people seeking help to the sea. Either on inflatable rubber boats or on inflatable boats in which you have removed the engine. The officers often use violence: they stab the inflatable boats or shoot into the water. At least seven such cases involved Frontex units.
For example, on the night of 18 to 19 April. At that time, Frontex recorded from the air how the Greek Coast Guard suspended refugees on a motorless boat and drove them away, which is a clear violation of the law – and put the people concerned in mortal danger.
Frontex Director Leggeri took care of the processing of this pushback himself. But in his own way: he had only concealed the incident from Parliament. For example, the European Parliament only received from Frontex what was already publicly available. The director invoked copyright to withhold documents instead of being accountable, the report says. And even the EU Commission of Ursula von der Leyen “in intensive, long and ongoing contacts” with Frontex in more than a year has not achieved that the authority is doing what it has been obliged to do since 2019 in human rights issues. In the report, the EU parliamentarians involved are “concerned about the Executive Director’s lack of cooperation”.
Furthermore, Leggeri retrospectively classified the April incident in such a way that the agency’s fundamental rights officer was no longer involved. Thus, one of the most explosive allegations of the investigation report of the European Parliament refers to this very night: Leggeri had personally instructed the Fundamental Rights Commissioner to delete all information she had collected about the incident. This is to emerge from internal e-mails that are available to MEPs. The Fundamental Rights Commissioner has previously received a “Serious Incident Report (SIR)": With these reports, officials who have participated in border protection actions can draw attention to possible violations of the law as whistleblowers. Leggeri downgraded the importance of rapport.
Typically Western, human rights have priority when using them
Apparently, this is not an isolated case. According to the Commission report, Frontex’s top human rights office has not been sufficiently involved in dealing with SIRs since “2017”. This means that it could hardly intervene to prevent incidents from being classified incorrectly.
In general, compliance with human rights does not seem to be a particularly high priority for Frontex – and especially for its director Fabrice Leggeri. For example, Leggeri had “seriously and unnecessarily” failed to recruit all at least 40 human rights observers who were supposed to accompany Frontex’s operations. Fifteen of the 20 observers hired so far would also have limited rights and would not be allowed to accompany operations at all. Instead of implementing respect for human rights, filling the vacant posts of observers and allowing them to work without restriction, Leggeri preferred to increase his own staff.
Frontex keeps producing scandals
Even if the facts in the report are relatively clear, the investigation report is a political compromise. For hours, the EU parliamentarians negotiated the exact wording. For example, the Conservatives had insisted that Frontex had not carried out the pushbacks itself – which no one had claimed. And even if no evidence has been found that Frontex itself has broken law during border operations, the agency does not say so freely. The Commission of Inquiry found evidence that fundamental rights of EU member states were violated in Frontex operations. Frontex “failed to investigate these violations quickly, attentively and effectively. As a result, Frontex has neither prevented them nor reduced the risk that there will be more,” the report said.
Despite the damning report issued by the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group to the European Border Agency, Frontex welcomes the conclusions of the Commission of Inquiry. The report confirmed that” there is no evidence that the agency is involved in any human rights violations."
But Leggeri stands the water up to his neck. For the left, for example, the report does not go far enough; it calls for the removal of the director. If he does not resign, Ylva Johansson must ensure that he is dismissed. In addition, the parliamentarians want to have a say in the renewal of Leggeri’s contract at the latest.
Because Frontex has repeatedly produced scandals in the past. For example, the Anti-Fraud Authority Olaf is also investigating the head of Frontex and his management team. The allegations, which weigh heavily on Leggeri, are about financial irregularities, bullying and illegal repatriations. There is also criticism from the European Court of Auditors, which criticises the lack of proper functioning of the scandalous authority. The Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, also published her report on the shortcomings in Frontex’s complaint management in June.
Sanctions are needed
In addition, there is a constant flood of criticism from non-governmental organizations, the media and government agencies: Frontex ensures that as few refugees and migrants as possible find their way to Europe. This is in violation of applicable law and fundamental human rights. It is about failure to provide assistance and about so-called push-backs and pull-backs.
All this has so far done little or no harm to the European Border Agency. Worldwide, hardly any authority is growing as rapidly as Frontex. By 2027, their budget is said to have increased thousands of times. The number of staff is to be increased further, and Frontex will be given new powers at regular intervals.
Although the EU Parliament has not approved the annual financial statements of Frontex for 2019 – among other things because of the ongoing investigations into human rights violations and because of alleged lies about meetings with industry lobbyists – for the time being. But that is not enough. As the latest investigation report shows, Frontex does what it wants. It cares little about human rights and violates its accountability. The freezing of the budget and the removal of the director should hardly be sufficient to remedy these shortcomings.