A classified EU report on Frontex, the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency, details serious allegations of cover ups of human rights violations in EU member states by the agency and its staff.
The report, more than 120 pages long, is the result of a months-long investigation and a score of witness interviews by Olaf, the EU anti-fraud agency. The findings, in part, led to the dramatic resignation of Frontex executive director, Fabrice Leggeri, in April this year. Until now the classified document has been available only to members of the European parliament under strict conditions. German freedom of information specialists Frag Den Staat, Lighthouse Reports and Der Spiegel, to whom the report was leaked, have now published the document in full, citing reasons of public interest particularly for the European taxpayer, whose taxes help to fund the agency.
The Guardian was given access before the report’s online publication. It details a series of concerns about how Frontex staff or assets (such as aerial surveillance vehicles) witnessed or concealed knowledge of pushbacks of asylum seekers from Greek territory during Leggeri’s tenure. The document also describes how Frontex staff expressed concern about “repercussions” from local authorities for reporting violations.
The EU’s best-funded agency, with a budget of €754m (£650m) has been under scrutiny since Leggeri’s resignation in April, and there have been calls for it to withdraw from operations in Greece due to reports of human rights violations at its borders, including illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers. Athens strenuously denies such practices and maintains it strictly adheres to international law. Frontex, which has a new interim leader, Aija Kalnaja, issued a statement last week reiterating that its “actions in the Aegean Sea region had been carried out in compliance with the applicable legal framework”. The agency has suggested an increased Frontex presence in Greece would be the solution to concerns of rights violations.
The report is peppered with snippets of private WhatsApp messages and interviews revealing internal discussions and worries about how to report sightings of alleged pushbacks in Greece. One exchange between staff regarding an incident where a Frontex surveillance craft sighted a migrant boat being towed back to Turkish waters by the Greek coastguard in April 2020, discusses how long they can wait to launch a serious incident report into it. “Don’t think we can wait much longer”, one message reads, “We also have to think about our reputation once it gets fully investigated.” The incident was finally reported, but not with a serious enough label to merit a full investigation. One person interviewed said, “it appeared … that the agency was clearly trying to cover the Greek authorities”.
The report testifies to the credibility of many of the pushback allegations investigated and reveals internal fractures. One staff member said the agency’s fundamental rights team, who monitor the agency’s obligations in accordance with EU and international law, were “not real Frontex colleagues”, while another suggested that a fundamental rights officer attempting to investigate allegations was bringing a “Khmer Rouge” style regime of terror to the agency.
Allegations concerning Greece make up a significant part of the investigation, but mention is also made of a serious incident of four migrant boats spotted in the Maltese search and rescue zone between 10 and 12 April 2020. It was concluded likely that one boat was “probably towed” to Italy by Maltese authorities, while others were pushed back to Libya by a fishing vessel registered in Libya but based in Malta. The report says this incident was also wrongly classified to circumvent a full investigation into the alleged violation.
Under its own regulations, “serious and persistent violations of fundamental rights”, would require a termination of Frontex operations. Responding to initial media reports about the findings of the EU anti-fraud investigation in July, Frontex said that it “strongly believes” the agency should strengthen its presence in Greece, which operates in a “very complex geopolitical environment”.
Others disagree. “We are looking at 43,000 toddlers, women and men who were kidnapped by European agents from safety in EU territory and abandoned at sea by Frontex and Greece in 2.5 years, with the full support of the commission and all member states,” said Omer Shatz and Iftach Cohen from Front-Lex, who are taking the agency to court in response to the allegations and report. “Our case requests the court to order Frontex to comply with EU law, terminate this operation and stop this despicable madness,” they said.
Frontex, Greek and Maltese authorities were approached for comment.
October 14, 2022 at 11:22AM Katy Fallon