Employees at the EU border agency Frontex were involved in covering up illegal pushbacks of migrants from Greece to Turkey in breach of their “fundamental rights”, a much-anticipated report by the bloc's anti-fraud watchdog has revealed.
The freedom of information portal FragDenStaat in Germany and media organisations Der Spiegel and Lighthouse Reports made the 120-page Olaf report public on Thursday.
Top managers at Frontex committed “serious misconduct and other irregularities” in covering up the incidents, and not investigating them or handling them correctly, the report found, but names were redacted.
“In doing so, they hindered the capacity of Frontex to fully comply with its responsibilities, namely ensuring the protection and promotion of fundamental rights,” the report read.
Frontex co-ordinates search-and-rescue and border interception operations on behalf of the 27 EU countries.
Pushbacks, the forcible return of people across an international border without an assessment of their rights to apply for asylum or other protection, breach international and EU law.
Olaf pored over information from open sources and media reports, sought documents from Frontex and the European Commission and interviewed 20 witnesses to investigate accusations of possible involvement or covering up of pushbacks and accusations of misconduct or irregularities.
“Olaf concludes, based on the evidence collected during the investigation, that the allegations are proven,” the report read.
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There was no immediate comment from Frontex or Greek authorities on the report but both have denied any wrongdoing.
This year Frontex executive director Fabrice Leggeri resigned after the Olaf report, which was concluded in February, as well as repeated media investigations that accused the agency of involvement in pushbacks.
The report details how pushback accusations — which include reports of migrants being put in life rafts and left adrift at sea — and evidence of them were mishandled, often not reported or not investigated according to Frontex’s rules.
Frontex officers may also have failed to report pushbacks because of fear of repercussions from Greece, the report said.
In one case, the report said the EU border agency’s surveillance plane flew away from the scene of an alleged pushback “to avoid witnessing incidents in the Aegean Sea".
On August 5, 2020, a member of Frontex reported his concerns in an email after a Frontex plane witnessed Greek authorities forcing a flimsy migrant boat back into Turkish waters.
“Towing an overcrowded, fragile boat in the night towards the open sea is a situation that can seriously endanger the lives of the passengers,” the email said.
“Our aircraft was immediately instructed to fly away from the scene by the Hellenic coastguard expert.”
EU investigators also said Frontex shared incorrect or biased information with EU institutions, including members of the European Commission and Parliament, who are responsible for holding the agency accountable, as well as Olaf investigators.
“I welcome that the Olaf report is finally public, as it should have been from the very beginning,” said Cornelia Ernst, a European politician in the Parliament’s Left group, who confirmed the report’s authenticity.
“It proves once again black on white what we have been saying for many years: Frontex is systematically involved in human rights violations and their cover up at the EU’s external borders."
Other politicians were less critical.
“There was misconduct within the agency concerning three people,” said Lena Dupont, a politician with the European People’s Party.
“The way the agency was structured by them was not helpful. The way they dealt with the allegations was also not helpful.”
Ms Dupont described Mr Leggeri’s resignation as the “correct” thing to do and welcomed the structural changes taking place at Frontex to address the issues.
Greece granted Mr Leggeri a state award in January, thanking him for helping the country to lower the rate of immigrants.
The award was presented by Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, who was mocked on Thursday by a prominent Greek politician.
“Now with the leak of the entire damning report, everyone can now understand what was going on and who has been covering it up,” said Kostas Arvanitis, a left-wing member of the European Parliament.
The Olaf report raises questions about how Frontex will continue operating in Greece.
According to its own regulations, the agency’s leader should suspend or terminate its activity if they see “violations of fundamental rights or international protection obligations that are of a serious nature or are likely to persist".
Last week, front-Lex, a non-government organisation challenging EU migration policies, filed a case at the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg seeking the immediate termination of Frontex operations in Greece based on the findings of the report.
“As long as Frontex is there, the Greek government has carte blanche to continue throwing migrants in the water to drown,” front-Lex lawyers Omer Shatz and Iftach Cohen told AP.