Fabrice Leggeri has a lot to do these days, the head of the European border agency Frontex constantly has to defend himself against accusations of tolerating and even covering up the Greek pushbacks in the Aegean Sea. On Thursday, Leggeri will answer questions from an investigation group in the European Parliament for the first time. Many MPs previously felt they were being misled by Leggeri.
A working group of the Frontex Board of Directors will present its investigation report on Friday. In the report that SPIEGEL read, the Frontex board of directors expressly does not approve of the allegations. At the same time, the authors harshly criticize the structures of the organization and Leggeri himself.
Research shows how Frontex is involved in the pushbacks
The reason for the investigation is research by SPIEGEL. Together with other media partners, the researchers were able to prove that the Greek coast guard systematically stops refugee boats in the Aegean Sea, breaks the engines and abandons the helpless migrants in Turkish waters – sometimes on non-maneuverable boats, sometimes on inflatable life rafts.
According to the research, Frontex was in the vicinity during at least seven of these so-called pushbacks, in some cases the European border guards even stopped the refugee boats themselves and then handed them over to the Greek coast guard.
Other / not not assignable
The investigation report now shows that Frontex itself documented the pushbacks in detail. Internal documents on the incidents investigated show that the Greek coast guard stops refugee boats, sometimes drives past them at high speed, tows the sometimes completely overcrowded boats towards Turkey and then abandons the people at sea. The report also shows that the Frontex leadership is aware of this. Corresponding surveillance images were streamed live to the agency’s headquarters.
The Greek authorities repeatedly asked Frontex not to observe the actions from the air. When European border guards wanted to report violations of the law in Frontex operations, this led to resistance within the agency. A Frontex employee tried to make it more difficult to report a Swedish crew.
An investigation report as a political compromise
However, the Council is reluctant to clearly identify these violations. The report contrasts the Frontex information with a hodgepodge of excuses by the Greek government. The Greek coast guard admitted to attaching ropes to the inflatable boats, but according to the Greek representation, those seeking protection would then return to Turkish waters on their own. Allegedly, the migrants would not ask for asylum either.
Frontex photos show that the rubber boats no longer have an engine after the intervention of the Greek coast guard. The Greek authorities claim that this is certainly due to the angle of the photos. It is possible that the engine was temporarily not on board. You don’t destroy the engines yourself.
This strange approach can be explained by the structure of the working group. The investigation was not independent. The EU member states, which provide the majority of Frontex border officers, are mainly represented on the administrative board. The working group includes representatives from Germany, France, Greece, Hungary, Norway, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland and the EU Commission. The Greek government also co-wrote the report. To some extent, the agency was investigating itself.
The Board of Directors is unable to resolve five incidents
The result is a political compromise: the authors of the report explicitly take the obvious protection claims of the Greek coast guard just as seriously as Frontex videos. The consequence: on the basis of the information available, no legal violations could be determined in seven cases, but five alleged pushback incidents could not be resolved, the information available was too contradictory, it said.
The authors of the report nevertheless harshly criticize Frontex and agency boss Leggeri. The board of directors obviously feels compelled to make it clear that boats must not be left unmaneuverable at sea. Any possible violation of fundamental rights must be reported immediately to the agency’s fundamental rights officer. In such cases, the investigation should not be delayed. The data should also not be embellished in retrospect, as Greek border officials had urged in at least one case.
“The agency urgently needs to make improvements in this regard.”
In the draft of a declaration by the board of directors, which SPIEGEL also has, agency boss Leggeri is reprimanded personally. After Frontex recorded a pushback from the air on April 19, he filed the case after an exchange of letters with the Greek government, and he informed the agency’s fundamental rights officer late. The Board of Directors welcomed the fact that Leggeri had written a letter to the Greek government. However, it is “regretted” that Leggeri did not take any further action afterwards.
The Board of Directors also notes “with concern” that the current reporting systems are not working and are not being used systematically. Frontex therefore does not even know the facts in cases of possible violations of fundamental rights. So no systematic analysis of fundamental rights concerns could take place. “The agency urgently needs to make improvements in this regard,” it says.
Leggeri, against whom the EU anti-fraud agency Olaf is also investigating, has been the subject of criticism for months. Among other things, he had failed to hire 40 fundamental rights observers on time. According to SPIEGEL research, the Frontex boss also systematically ignored his own fundamental rights officer in the past. In particular, EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson, who has been investigating the allegations for months, personally accused Leggeri and urged reforms.
Article 46 of the Frontex regulations obliges Leggeri to terminate missions if he learns of serious and persistent human rights violations. According to many experts, the systematic Greek pushbacks meet this definition.
Does Frontex have to withdraw from the Aegean Sea?
A Frontex withdrawal from the Aegean would be a scandal. The Aegean is the main migration route to Europe.
The Board of Directors report openly discusses a possible withdrawal. This would have numerous negative consequences, it is said. The agency’s presence allegedly has a “de-escalating and preventive effect”. Frontex can help ensure that EU states adhere to human rights. The agency could “in a certain way embody a supervisory authority for the bodies and units involved.”
So far, Frontex has obviously not fulfilled this role. Nevertheless, the Board of Directors advises against withdrawing from the Aegean Sea. Instead, in the future, Frontex must be given fewer far-reaching options than complete withdrawal from the mission in order to react to human rights violations by EU countries. So far, canceling the mission is the only option. In addition, Frontex aircraft will in future precisely document Greek border protection measures by lingering over the refugee boat. In general, all Frontex operations should be documented on video if possible.
The passage alone suggests that even the Frontex board of directors knows what is going on in the Aegean. One just doesn’t want to call the crimes such.
For Fabrice Leggeri, however, it is getting more difficult every day. The Turkish embassy in Warsaw recently handed him a USB stick with videos. According to Leggeri, the videos show “numerous alleged pushbacks and violations of fundamental rights,” according to a speech that Leggeri gave at a meeting of the Frontex working group; the manuscript is available to SPIEGEL. The Turkish coast guard systematically films the human rights violations committed by the Greeks, mainly because they want to put pressure on the EU. The Greek coast guard tries to avoid such recordings. Leggeri, however, is already declining: “It seems to be difficult to recognize when and where the scenes are taking place.”