The EU Border and Coast Guard Agency Amid Old and New Accusations

By Lorenzo Trasca

Staff members of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) were recently accused in a report published by OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office, of covering-up human rights violations perpetrated by EU Member States. The report, which investigates activities carried out by Frontex since late 2020, was initially only available to MEPs under the condition of strict confidentiality. As a matter of fact, it was made accessible to the public only later, in October 2022, thanks to the campaign of FragDenStaat

The report is only the latest in a series of accusations that have been made against the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency over human rights violations. Among these, a report published by the EU Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) in July 2021 points out that Frontex staff have been unwilling to investigate human rights violations of EU countries which were communicated by other international actors, such as national and international human rights bodies and organisations. Nevertheless, LIBE had not identified Frontex staff as materially executing human rights violations, but rather their negligence, merely highlighting deficiencies in Frontex’s mechanisms to monitor, report and assess fundamental rights situations and developments.

Other recent accusations include one of the European Court of Auditors (ECA), which published a report shortly before LIBE on the effectiveness of Frontex’s support to external border management. The ECA concluded that “Frontex has not fully implemented its 2016 mandate and (…) that there is a significant risk that Frontex will struggle to carry out the mandate assigned to it by the Regulation (EU) 2019/1896”, i.e., the new 2019 Regulation on Frontex that replaces its predecessor (Regulation EU 2016/1624) and gives the organisation increased powers.

Furthermore, some NGOs that operate directly in the Mediterranean Sea and that take part in the network group “Abolish Frontex” indicated that Frontex was repeatedly involved in illegal pushbacks and other human rights violations, through a letter sent to the European Commission, the EU Council, and the European Parliament, in June 2021. The activists demanded the abolition of Frontex and the system it heads, based on policies “built on a narrative that frames migration as a security problem, depicting desperate people on the move as a threat.” “These policies don’t protect lives” they affirm, “they put them in danger.

As mentioned above, the latest accusation against Frontex comes from OLAF. The report of the European Anti-Fraud Office gathers some information on the negligence and acquiescence of Frontex staff with regard to human rights violations, mostly carried out by the Greek coast guard. As evidence, interviews and fragments of conversations that took place amongst Frontex staff are provided in the report. These testify to the EU Agency employees’ concern that they were involved in the human rights violations they had just witnessed.

Amongst the evidence collected, the report also records so-called “incidents” in which the Maltese authorities were involved, reporting on cases of refoulement of migrant boats to Italy and to the Libyan coast, which were appropriately covered up by the Frontex staff. As stated in the report, staff of the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency are accused of having classified certain events they had witnessed in order to avoid further investigation on them. In general, Frontex officials are accused of “failure to follow procedures and processes, failure in their duty of loyalty and failure in their managerial responsibilities“.

But is Frontex guilty or not? Its response to the OLAF accusations suggests that the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency is trying to downplay the charges and make the public think it has moved on. Evidence of this is the resignation of Patrice Leggeri (Executive Director of Frontex since 2015) in April 2021, following the accusations made against him by OLAF. However, Mr Leggeri’s parting words seem to suggest that he was used as a scapegoat to hide the mismanagement of the whole staff of Frontex. Indeed, in his letter of resignation, Mr Leggeri is almost surprised to see that the mandate of the executive director that Frontex had renewed for him in 2019 “has silently but effectively been changed”. 

Furthermore, in the communiqué published in response to OLAF’s accusations, Frontex does not deny the charges made against it by the European Anti-Fraud Office but classifies its misconduct as “practices of the past”. In this statement, the Agency says it has taken the necessary steps to ensure that Frontex can now operate with greater respect for human rights, but whether it will be able to keep its promises remains to be seen. Certainly, Frontex will have all eyes on it from now on, and by virtue of the concerns it has recently raised, any suspicious activity will be more likely to be investigated.

Hopefully, this will not be necessary, however, as it seems clear that an agency founded on the principles of the European Union certainly cannot sacrifice the respect for human rights to achieve its goals: Frontex’s new Executive Director Aija Kalnaja should keep this in mind when carrying out her duties.

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