What NGOs and the media have been reporting for a long time has now been confirmed by the EU's anti-fraud agency OLAF: Frontex has systematically tried to cover up human rights violations in the Aegean in recent years.
The results of a research by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) are 120 pages thick. Over a period of 16 months, 20 witnesses were interviewed, countless email and chat conversations were analysed and documents and videos were seized. The report confirms what human rights organisations and NGOs in Greece have been saying for a long time: Frontex has made itself an accomplice in the Greek pushback operations in the Aegean.
Actually, the report was supposed to remain secret. However, the text of the report has now been published by various media. From the report it is not only clear that Frontex actively looks the other way when human rights violations like pushbacks happen. It also shows that the internal fundamental rights officer was knowingly bypassed, that internal reports on human rights violations were manipulated and that Frontex did not even stop at misleading the European Commission and the Parliament.
Frontex actively covered up pushbacks by the Greek coast guard
Pushbacks happen every day in the Aegean. This year alone, according to the Aegean Boat Report, almost 800 boats were prevented from crossing by the Greek Coast Guard. And this under the knowing eye of Frontex. Such as on 5 August 2020 when Frontex's FSA Metis aircraft observed a boat with around 30 people on board being towed back into Turkish waters by Greek authorities. A clear violation of human rights. And someone at Frontex actually recognised the incident as such and drew up a "Serious Incident Report", which is used, among other things, to document human rights violations.
According to OLAF, however, no measures were taken or those responsible prosecuted, but the aircraft was withdrawn from the Aegean and stationed in the central Mediterranean to "support operations" there. During a search at Frontex headquarters in Warsaw a few months later, the anti-corruption agency found a document in which the transfer of the FSA Metis was the subject. On the last page they found the handwritten note of a senior representative: "We have withdrawn our FSA some time ago, so not to witness..."
In an interview with OLAF, a Frontex employee states: "The purpose of withdrawing aerial surveillance was so that Frontex would no longer witness incidents and alleged pushbacks by Greece and thus not have to deal with sensitive cases internally in the agency." The person also states, "Personally, the solution was good for me as I was in the middle of two different and opposite demands: [Unknown person A] wanted to cover possible irregularities by Greece and [Unknown person B] wanted to deal with those cases in full compliance."
Internal investigations were prevented
Because there are guidelines. Frontex is obliged under EU and international law to guarantee respect for human rights in its operations. However, as we can see, Frontex not only does not take steps to prevent human rights violations but actively looks the other way. Moreover, according to the report, measures were repeatedly taken to ensure that human rights violations, such as those observed by the FSA Metis, were neither documented nor investigated.
Yet Frontex has an internal department responsible for ensuring that the agency respects fundamental rights. And in the event of any violations of these, it is supposed to conduct investigations and propose countermeasures.
However, this department and especially its head, the Fundamental Rights Officer (FRO), are internally unpopular and are downright sabotaged. In internal chat transcripts, which are available to OLAF, the rights officer's attitude was described as an "intellectual dictatorship" and compared to the terror of the "Khmer Rouge". Furthermore, Frontex staff were encouraged to regard the staff of the Fundamental Rights Department not as colleagues but as "outsiders", as "not one of us".
Furthermore, Frontex management wanted to limit access to information for the Fundamental Rights Unit, even if it concerned human rights violations. Wording of a meeting on 3 September 2020: "The Fundamental Rights Department has a right of access to all information. But it does not mean that we give all the information. Fundamental Rights asks and we try to be friendly. That’s the trap.”
However, the deliberate withholding of information began much earlier. As early as 2018, the Fundamental Rights Division's access to the agency's main border surveillance and information management tool was severely restricted. From that point on, they could only view limited information and classified information was no longer accessible to them at all.
To top it all off, the Frontex leadership decided shortly afterwards to classify the so-called Serious Incident Reports (SIR) as classified. These are the reports that, among other things, report human rights violations.
Uncooperative with EU institutions
Internal control mechanisms were gradually and strategically eliminated in order to avoid unwelcome questions. Nevertheless, the conditions at the European external borders, especially in the Aegean, did not go unnoticed by the world public.
In 2020, reports accumulated in the media and from NGOs about the involvement of Frontex in pushbacks. The EU Commission then demanded answers and wanted to know what progress Frontex had made in protecting human rights - the border protection agency is obliged to do so.
According to OLAF, Frontex only gave a "partial overview of the dynamics of events". Furthermore, they attested "insufficient cooperation and readiness" with regard to the Commission's proposals for change. But Frontex was not only dishonest before the Commission - several times the agency was summoned by the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) to provide explanations for media and NGO reports. According to OLAF, Frontex lied or misled the Parliament in at least 11 cases.
Business as usual in the Aegean
OLAF describes these lies and misleading statements to the European Commission and Parliament as a "lack of loyalty to the European Union".
One feels as if one is in a "kind of war" and all means seem to be justified. The ones who suffer from this policy and Frontex's behaviour are the people who come to Europe in the hope of a safe and dignified life. And despite this report and the proven misdemeanours of the border agency, there is no change in practice in the Aegean in sight. Frontex contradicts the findings of the investigation and claims in all seriousness: "Frontex's actions in the Aegean region were carried out in accordance with the applicable legal framework, including responsibilities stemming from fundamental rights".
Blatant mockery of the more than 20,000 people who have already been prevented from crossing illegally this year and all those who have needlessly lost their lives. We demand the immediate abolition of Frontex and safe routes for all refugees!