Cover-Ups, Concealment and Lies Classified Report Reveals Full Extent of Frontex Scandal
The EU’s anti-fraud office has found that the European border agency covered up and helped to finance illegal pushbacks of asylum-seekers in Greece. The report, which DER SPIEGEL has obtained, puts pressure on the EU Commission – and could also spell trouble for Frontex’s new leadership.
By Giorgos Christides und Steffen Lüdke
The contents of the investigative report from OLAF, the European Union’s anti-fraud agency, are classified. Members of the European Parliament are only granted access under strict security measures, and normal citizens are not allowed to see it. But Margaritis Schinas, the vice president of the European Commission, who is responsible, among other things, for migration, is allowed to. And perhaps he ought to do so as well. At the end of the day, it relates to a sensitive issue that also happens to fall within his area of responsibility.
Investigators have taken 129 pages to document the involvement of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, in the illegal activities of the Greek Coast Guard. Border guards systematically dump asylum-seekers adrift at sea in the Aegean – either in rickety boats or on inflatable life rafts. The investigators reviewed private emails and WhatsApp messages from Fabrice Leggeri, the former head of Frontex, and his team. They interviewed witnesses and seized documents and videos.
But Schinas has so far shown very little interest in the report. When a member of the European Parliament recently asked him if he had read it, he simply changed the subject.
Frontex Finances Greek Pushbacks
The report from OLAF has the potential to destroy careers. One, that of former border guard agency head Leggeri, is already over . After reading the report from the investigation, Frontex’s board of directors had no choice but to urge him to step down. What investigators have pieced together, though, is so explosive that it reaches far beyond Leggeri. As such, the EU has been trying to keep the report under wraps for months now. However, DER SPIEGEL, Le Monde and Lighthouse Reports have all obtained copies of the report.
In their findings, the EU investigators provide detailed evidence of Greek human rights violations. And they prove that Frontex knew about them early on. Instead of preventing pushbacks, Leggeri and his people covered them up. They lied to the European Parliament and concealed the fact that the agency even provided support for some pushbacks using European taxpayer money.
DER SPIEGEL has already revealed most of these transgressions in joint research conducted together with Lighthouse Reports. With its report, however, OLAF, an EU authority, is now officially establishing the breaches of law and misconduct, documenting some pretty shocking details along the way. The 129 pages read like an indictment of the Greek government, which still claims it didn’t break any laws. It also creates pressure for Frontex interim director Aija Kalnaja and the European Commission. They will have to act quickly now if they want to remain free of guilt.
Left adrift on the high seas: A Turkish coast guard officer rescues a child from a life raft on the Aegean. Foto: Emrah Gurel / AP
A single pushback case does a good job of illustrating almost all of the misdeeds of which OLAF investigators are now accusing Frontex. During the early morning hours of August 5, 2020, the Greek Coast Guard towed an inflatable refugee boat behind it. About 30 refugees had been sitting on the vessel. The Greeks actually should have brought the asylum-seekers safely to shore and provided them with the chance to apply for asylum. Instead, they dragged them back toward Turkey.
Officials at Frontex were able to follow the pushback live. A Frontex aircraft had streamed what was happening back to headquarters in Warsaw. By that point, though, the people at Frontex had long since known what was going to happen. They were familiar with the images of refugees left abandoned in the Aegean Sea, and an internal report had explicitly warned of the Greek pushbacks. One official had noted that the Coast Guard had put the migrants in a situation “that can seriously endanger” their lives. “The repetition of such kind of events (sic) becomes more and more difficult to deal with.” The pushbacks posed a “huge reputational risk” to the agency, the official wrote.
Aircraft Withdrawn To Prevent Recording of Human Rights Violations
Investigators claim that the Frontex heads prevented the proper investigation of the pushback. Instead, they withdrew a plane that had been patrolling the Aegean Sea on behalf of Frontex. Officially, it was said, the aircraft was needed in the central Mediterranean. The truth, though, was that Frontex wanted to avoid recording further human rights violations.
The OLAF investigators have gathered considerable evidence of this. They quote Frontex employees who provide statements that are incriminating of Leggeri. They also uncovered a handwritten note dating from Nov. 16, 2020. “We have withdrawn our FSA some time ago, so not to witness (sic)…,“ it states. FSA is short for “Frontex Surveillance Aircraft.” The EU agency, which is obliged to prevent violations of fundamental rights, deliberately looked the other way.
The investigators also detail how Frontex used European taxpayer money to fund pushbacks in at least six instances. The incident on August 5, for example, involved the Greek Coast Guard vessel “CPB 137.” The agency had co-funded the boat’s mission. The agency’s leadership knew exactly how delicate the matter was – and concealed this from all subsequent inquiries made by the European Parliament and Frontex’s Management Board.
“The fundamental rights issue is perceived as a gimmick, a kind of gadget with no real use and need.”
A Frontex employee quoted in the OLAF report
Former Frontex Director Leggeri is responsible for many of these lapses. He systematically prevented more detailed investigations – taking steps like withholding crucial videos and documents from the agency’s fundamental rights commissioner at the time, Spanish lawyer Inmaculada Arnaez, as revealed in previous reporting from DER SPIEGEL. The OLAF report now provides additional corroboration of revelations previously reported in DER SPIEGEL, and also gives clues about Leggeri’s motives through private WhatsApp messages.
Reading the messages, one has no choice but to conclude that, for years, the EU tolerated a man with right-wing populist leanings at the helm of its border management agency. As early as 2018, the agency’s leadership had feared that Frontex would be turned into something akin to a “taxi” service for ferrying refugees. Leggeri and his team had also been suspicious of the current European Commission, the EU’s executive branch. The messages reveal their belief that the Commission is on the side of NGOs that are advocates of asylum-seekers. Later, the agency leadership team rails against the “stupidity“ of certain Commission officials. At one point, when Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson promoted the integration of immigrants in the EU on Twitter, a message stated: “Everything is said.”
Former Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri: right-wing populist leanings Foto: Janek Skarzynski / AFP
But fundamental rights officer Arnaez has been Frontex management’s favorite bogeyman. She is compared in the messages to dictator Pol Pot, the communist mass murderer. They claim the fundamental rights officer is bringing a “Khmer Rouge”-style regime of terror to the agency. Leggeri isn’t the only official who appeared to be hindering Arnaez’s work, either. In one meeting, a Frontex staffer warned: The fundamental rights officers are “not real Frontex colleagues.“
Neither Leggeri, nor the two other Frontex employees who are the subjects of serious accusations in the OLAF report, wanted to comment when contacted by DER SPIEGEL for a response. They include Thibauld de La Haye Jousselin, Leggeri’s right-hand man, who has also since left the agency, and Dirk Vande Ryse, formerly head of Frontex’s Situational Awareness and Monitoring Division, who has been assigned to another post.
Frontex Interim Head Wants To Send Even More Officers to Aegean
The new Frontex interim head, Aija Kalnaja, would like to get all this behind her as soon as possible. She says the crucial thing is that the border agency never gets into a situation like that again. And yet it already finds itself in a similar predicament: Videos and testimonies show that new pushbacks happen in the Aegean Sea almost every day. And Frontex continues to work closely with the Greek border guards.
Kalnaja has herself stated that she has not read the OLAF report – this despite the fact that the it reveals a whole series of structural problems that don’t have anything to do with Leggeri. For example, it states that Greek border guards apparently place pressure on Frontex officials if they try to report pushbacks, as previously reported by DER SPIEGEL. The Greeks often conceal arriving refugee boats by not recording these “ghost landings” in the corresponding Frontex database.
Under Frontex’s own regulations, Kalnaja would be required to end an operation if there are “serious and persistent violations of fundamental rights.” The OLAF report leaves no doubt that this is the case in the Aegean. But Kalnaja isn’t even thinking about withdrawing her officials – in fact, she wants to send more staff to the Aegean. In response to a question from DER SPIEGEL, Frontex management said it “strongly believes” that the agency should strengthen its presence in the country. Greece, Frontex wrote, operates in a “very complex geopolitical environment.“
Pressure on European Commission Grows
The Olaf report also raises questions about the European Commission, which each year transfers millions of euros to Athens. The money is earmarked to help the Greeks manage migration according to EU law – not for abandoning people in life rafts without motors on the open sea.
Frontex interim director Aija Kalnaja: More Officers to Aegean Sea Foto: Martin Divisek / EPA
Home Affairs Commissioner Johansson is politically responsible for Frontex. The social democratic politician will have to live with the fact that the use of force at the EU’s external borders has escalated under her watch. Johansson has publicly called on the Greek government to halt the pushbacks. But that hasn’t changed anything. So far, the Commission has balked at calls to cut the funding to Athens. Nor has the Commission initiated any infringement proceedings against Greece.
In Brussels, it is considered an open secret that this could be related to European Commission Vice President Schinas. The Greek politician’s Twitter profile is adorned with his country’s flag. The conservative politician is a member of the same political party as Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. When it comes to politically sensitive matters, Schinas isn’t shy about asserting his influence, one insider reports. In a recent interview , Schinas said there was no solid evidence that the Coast Guard conducted pushbacks. He claimed the accusations have been lodged exclusively by “NGOs, the press and the authoritarian regime in Ankara.“ What the commissioner didn’t mention is the OLAF report, which he has had access to since late February