“We Have a Lot of Evidence” Pressure Growing on Frontex Chief from Pushbacks Investigation
An investigation by the EU’s anti-corruption agency has put Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri in a tough spot. Evidence suggests that he attempted to cover up illegal activities by Greek border officials – against the will of his own staff.
Europe’s top corruption hunter got to the point after just a few minutes. Normally, Ville Itälä told members of the European Parliament at a meeting in early March, testimony isn’t necessarily consistent across all witnesses. This time, though, he says, that isn’t the case. All 20 witnesses had basically the same story to tell. “We have a lot of evidence.”
Itälä is head of the European Anti-Fraud Office, known as OLAF. His investigators look into cases of possible fraud or misappropriation involving European Union funds or when EU functionaries are involved in financial chicanery or otherwise disregard EU regulations. These days, Itälä has Frontex in his sights, Europe’s scandal-ridden border protection agency.
OLAF spent over a year on the investigation, even searching the office of Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri and those of his closest aides. The agency’s closing report is more than 200 pages long and strictly confidential. Even European parliamentarians, who are tasked with controlling Frontex, only received an oral summary of the report. And it was a bombshell.
According to several people who were in attendance for the oral summary, the OLAF report accuses three members of Frontex leadership of having violated EU regulations. Furthermore, those violations were allegedly severe enough that OLAF has recommended disciplinary measures.
Following Itälä’s presentation, parliamentarians wanted to question Leggeri about the report’s findings, but the Frontex leader was unwilling to discuss the report, insisting that he hadn’t yet been able to read it. OLAF has thus far withheld the names of those accused of violating EU law, but there are plenty of indications that the Frontex leader himself is a primary focus of the investigation.
Illegal Pushbacks – With the Support of Frontex
The scandal threatening to ensnare Leggeri is located geographically between the Turkish coast and the easternmost Greek islands, such as Lesbos and Samos.
Since March 2020, the Greek coast guard has been intercepting boats in the area full of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, including many Syrians. In multiple cases, border guards have apparently destroyed the vessels’ motors, pulled the people back toward the Turkish coast and then abandoned them at sea – either in inflatable life rafts or in rubber dinghies. Sometimes, the border guards have even forced back asylum-seekers after they had already reached the Greek islands.
Such operations are referred to among human rights activists as pushbacks, and they are illegal under European Union law. In cooperation with Lighthouse Reports and other partner media outlets, DER SPIEGEL has collected and published clear evidence of the systematic use of pushbacks on the EU’s external border. The reporting has also demonstrated that several pushbacks have occurred with Frontex border guards in the immediate area, even handing over refugee boats to the Greek officials before they then towed the boats back into Turkish water. In at least two cases, Frontex planes observed pushback operations from the air.
Frontex head Leggeri has consistently evaded the accusations. In hearings at the European Parliament, he has insisted that he knows nothing about such operations, and he has also defended the Greek government. And when questions have hit a bit too close to home, he has sought to exhaust his interlocutors with long monologues full of bureaucratic details, or he begins holding forth about “hybrid threats.” In Brussels, people have begun calling him “Fabrice Teflon.”
A lawsuit has been filed against Leggeri in the Court of Justice of the European Union. Foto: Hristo Rusev / Getty Images
Now, though, Leggeri could end up losing his job over the pushback scandal. OLAF investigators are apparently in possession of detailed evidence that Frontex management actively covered up the pushbacks – against the will of Frontex employees. Internal photographs which have never been shown before and which have been leaked to DER SPIEGEL and Lighthouse Reports, support these findings. They show that Leggeri was in possession of clear evidence for illegal pushbacks early on.
Photos of a Greek Pushback Operation
One of the instances causing difficulties for Leggeri took place on the night of April 19, 2020. A Frontex plane was circling above the Aegean at the time, and the images captured by the surveillance aircraft were streamed in real time to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw.
At around 11 p.m., officials saw that Greek border officials had intercepted a refugee boat north of Lesbos and taken asylum-seekers onboard their vessel. According to applicable law, they should have given the refugees the opportunity to apply for asylum. Instead, though, they forced the migrants back onto their inflatable dinghy and towed them back toward Turkey.
Greek officials in the coordination center in Piraeus ordered the Frontex pilots to change course to a different route, away from the dinghy. The Frontex team leader asked if there was a reason for the change of course. “Negative,” came the reply from the Greeks.
The Frontex pilots took a final photo at 3:21 a.m., showing the refugees alone at sea with no motor, as Frontex officials noted. The Greek coast guard left the area. Only at 6:32 a.m. were the migrants rescued by the Turkish coast guard. There were four children among them.
DER SPIEGEL reported on the April 19 pushback more than a year ago. Now, though, the complete mission report is available, and it includes the images sent to Warsaw from the Frontex surveillance plane. In the photos, the refugees on the rubber dinghy and the Greek border officials are clearly recognizable. Never before has a Greek pushback been recorded in such detail. The images are proof that Frontex leadership knew just a few weeks after the pushbacks commenced that Greek officials were violating EU law in the Aegean.
Anatomy of the pushback on April 19, 2020: The first photo, taken by a Frontex surveillance plane, shows a refugee boat in the Aegean.
Next to it, a vessel belonging to the Greek coast guard can be seen.
The Greek coast guard vessel pulls the refugee boat behind it – toward Turkey.
In this image, the Greek border guards have taken the asylum-seekers onboard their vessel.
Subsequently, the asylum-seekers were loaded back onto their dinghy.
The coast guard officials then towed the boat further toward the Turkish coast.
Finally, they abandon the dinghy at sea, without a functioning motor, as the Frontex aircraft reports.
Frontex’s statutes forbid the agency from violating human rights and also require it to actively prevent such violations. Leggeri, though, did the opposite: Internal Frontex documents show that the agency chief took over personal control of the investigation into the incident and ruled that it did not represent a possible human rights violation – even though Frontex officials clearly identified it as such. By doing so, Leggeri avoided the involvement of the agency’s fundamental rights officer (FRO). Even today, Leggeri continues to deny that the images from the surveillance aircraft show anything illegal.
OLAF has taken a close look at how Frontex has handled the pushbacks, and the agency’s findings are consistent with reporting conducted by DER SPIEGEL and its partners. According to Itälä’s briefing, OLAF has obtained evidence that information was withheld from the FRO and that the incidents were intentionally classified as not being possible human rights violations to avoid further scrutiny.
In his presentation, OLAF Director General Itälä provided the European parliamentarians with detailed information about witness interviews. One Frontex official, he reported, said that agency staff is generally convinced that illegal pushbacks were performed in the Aegean and that the Frontex leadership sought to cover them up for political reasons. He says that one Frontex official testified that his staff had wanted to adhere to the applicable regulations, but that “senior management” had covered up the possible legal violations potentially committed by EU member states.
When contacted by DER SPEIGEL, Frontex declined to comment on the accusations, saying that the agency is required to ensure that the OLAF investigation remains confidential and that the rights of the accused must be protected.
Where Does the German Interior Minister Stand?
Leggeri will soon have to defend himself before a court of law. The NGO front-LEX has submitted a complaint to the Court of Justice of the European Union in the name of Alaa Hamoudi, a young Syrian who Greek border officials intercepted on the island of Samos before hauling him back out to sea and abandoning him on a flimsy inflatable life raft. Reporting by DER SPIEGEL and Lighthouse Reports indicate that a Frontex aircraft was flying overhead at the time.
Front-LEX lawyers Omer Shatz, Iftach Cohen and Amanda Musco Eklund have sued for half a million euros in damages. “Under Fabrice Leggeri’s leadership, Frontex has become a danger to the rule of law in the EU. The Management Board must immediately remove him from office,” Shatz says. The lawyer adds that, just as the EU anti-corruption agency has exposed Leggeri’s culpability, he is confident that the court will find the Frontex director guilty.
But the question as to whether Leggeri will in fact be removed from his post is a political one, and only the Management Board has the power to do so. The board includes representatives from governments of Schengen member states. Management Board meetings are confidential, but internal meeting minutes obtained by DER SPIEGEL and Lighthouse Reports indicate that Germany has thus far always stood by Leggeri.
Whereas the European Commission called an emergency session of the Management Board after initial reports published by DER SPIEGEL about potential pushbacks and provided details to the Frontex fundamental rights officer, then-German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer wasn’t particularly concerned. He insisted that Germany’s top priority was the fight against terrorism, according to the minutes from the Nov. 10, 2020, meeting, and insisted that Frontex needed to be reinforced.
A working group under German leadership was ultimately unable to find proof for the pushbacks. Particularly clear examples, such as the pushback that Frontex itself recorded, proved impossible for the working group – according to the group itself – to completely clear up. Meeting minutes seem to indicate that the group wasn’t particularly interested in an in-depth investigation. “It would be beneficial to add some positive aspects about Frontex operations to present the agency in a better light,” it reads in one spot.
More on Pushbacks
The Management Board is scheduled to meet again at the end of March, this time to consider possible disciplinary measures. By then, the three officials who have been inculpated will have had plenty of time to read the investigative report. Thus far, it has only been made available for reading in a specially secured reading room. Leggeri, meanwhile, is spending a fair amount of time on the road these day trying to drum up support in European capitals. In January, he was presented a medal by the Greek government for his contributions to securing the EU border.
In Berlin, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), must now decide on her position regarding the Frontex chief. Ahead of last year’s election, the SPD had demanded new leadership for Frontex, without Leggeri. The coalition agreement hammered out by the SPD with its two junior partners, the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats, expresses a desire to “end illegal returns and the suffering on the EU’s external borders.” Thus far, that goal has yet to be reached in the Aegean. In part because Frontex has taken no steps to stop them, the Greeks are continuing with their pushback strategy – more brutal than ever