Classified report reveals pushback coverup on EU borders

Classified report reveals pushback coverup on EU borders
Update: 30 July 2022 03:08
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EU’s border agency covered up and financed illegal treatment of asylum seekers in Greece, according to the European Anti-Fraud Office

The EU’s controversial border agency FRONTEX is implicated in being an accomplice to the violent and illegal pushback of asylum-seekers by Greek law enforcement officials in a confidential report obtained by Der Spiegel. 

The 129-page document penned by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) lays out the illegal activities of the Greek Coast Guard. The report was circulated among senior FRONTEX officials months ago. After reading the findings, they reportedly asked for the former head of the agency, Fabrice Leggeri, to step down.

The highly-explosive document has been kept under wraps ever since. But Der Spiegel, alongside Le Monde and Lighthouse Reports, has managed to obtain copies of it.

The report includes findings of EU investigators that provide detailed evidence of human rights violations by Greece. They also prove that FRONTEX knew about these violations taking place in private even as it was denying they took place in public. The Der Speigel report puts the blame squarely on the former leadership of the border agency.

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 highlights that most of the violations in the document were already reported by international media and human rights organizations.

But this is the first time that an EU authority, OLAF, has officially established that there were breaches of law and misconduct on the part of Greek law enforcement officers and FRONTEX officials alike.

The 129 pages read like an indictment of the Greek government, which still claims it didn’t break any laws.

Der Spiegel highlights a pushback as an example of the extent of misconduct that was, and possibly still is, rampant in the Greek Coast Guard and FRONTEX elements serving on the borders of the EU.

The pushback case dates back to August 5, 2020. According to the report, the Greek Coast Guard towed an inflatable boat filled with around 30 refugees. The Coast Guard was supposed to bring the asylum seekers onshore and give them a chance to apply for asylum. Instead, they dragged them back towards Turkey.

FRONTEX officials monitored the pushback in real-time. An aircraft even live-streamed the whole operation to the agency’s headquarters in Warsaw. But instead of preventing the pushback, officials sat by idly. The OLAF report mentions an internal FRONTEX report that explicitly warned about the Greek pushbacks. An official speaking to the EU investigators noted that the pushbacks “could seriously endanger” the lives of asylum-seekers. The official also stated that “the repetition of such events becomes more and more difficult to deal with,” and that the pushbacks could cause a “huge reputational risk” to the border agency.

EU investigators who contributed to the OLAF report also claim that senior FRONTEX officials tried to hinder the investigation on pushbacks. They pulled a plane patrolling the Aegean Sea back, saying that it was “needed” in the central Mediterranean. The truth, according to Der Spiegel’s account, was that FRONTEX wanted to avoid the recording of further human rights violations. The OLAF report also included a handwritten note incriminating former director Leggeri. The note, dating from November 16, 2020, says “We have withdrawn our FSA (Frontex Surveillance Aircraft) some time ago, so not to witness…” 

The EU agency, which is obliged to prevent violations of fundamental rights, deliberately looked the other way.

There was also an instance in which a FRONTEX-funded boat went on a pushback mission. The Greek Coast Guard vessel “CPB 137” committed illegal acts against asylum seekers, which meant that FRONTEX used European taxpayer money to indirectly fund the illegal treatment of asylum seekers. The sensitive issue was reportedly concealed from all subsequent inquiries made by the European Parliament and the Management Board of Frontex.

The report once again brought the EU’s troubled border agency under the spotlight. But the interim head of FRONTEX, Aija Kalnaja, would like to get all this behind her as soon as possible.

Kalnaja stated that she did not read the OLAF report. But she plans to send more officials to Greece, according to a statement given to Der Spiegel.

The report also puts a lot of pressure on the EU Commission. The Commission provides millions of euros in funds to Athens to help Greece manage migration in tandem with EU law. 

Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson is politically responsible for FRONTEX. She publicly called on Athens to halt the pushbacks numerous times but to no avail. The Commission did not heed calls to cut funding to Greece, nor did it consider taking punitive measures against Athens.

The OLAF report and the coverup scandal it laid out bare might force the EU Commission to take more concrete steps to end the human rights violations on the Greek border.