The head of the EU’s border agency Frontex tried to cover up an illegal pushback of immigrants looking to cross the Aegean, it was alleged on Thursday.
Frontex executive director Fabrice Leggeri told the agency’s fundamental rights officer to delete information relating to the pushback by the Greek coastguard and then had the case closed, a European Parliament report claimed.
The April 2020 pushback, which was videoed by a Frontex drone, saw a group of immigrants looking to reach Greece from Turkey intercepted by the Greek coastguard and then abandoned in their dinghy in Turkish waters, after the craft’s engine was removed. Their fate is unknown.
According to the report penned by Dutch Euro MP Tineke Strik, Mr Leggeri subsequently “requested” that the agency’s fundamental rights officer “remove all information gathered” and had the incident reclassified on the grounds that it did not involve any human rights violation.
The Kara Tepe refugee camp in Lesbos
Credit: AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas, File
The claims, which surfaced after an investigation by journalists’ network Bellingcat, were put directly to Mr Leggeri by MEPs, Ms Strik said.
“We asked the executive director: how come? How can this be?” Ms Strik told the Daily Telegraph.
She said that Mr Leggeri told her that there was a risk of a “hybrid threat” from Turkey and that the “political situation” – tense relations between Greece and Turkey – needed to be taken into account.
Ms Strik said this version of events was not supported by Frontex’s own video. There was, she said, "no sign at all of actions by the Turkish authorities…it was a very quiet surrounding. There was only the Greek coastguard and that rubber boat, so I cannot think of any justification of acting in that way”.
She continued: “This is very serious… It gives the impression that he [Mr Leggeri] was covering up something [and] helping the Greek authorities. This is a very dangerous thing.” Because of the reclassification, the European Parliament was not informed about the pushback.
A Frontex spokesman countered there was “no deletion and no reclassification”. According to the Frontex version of events, the Greek coastguard handed the migrants back to the Turks, who then towed the dinghy away.
There was a suspicion that Turkey had infiltrated the migrant group with special forces soldiers, hence the reference to “hybrid warfare”, the spokesman said.
Mr Leggeri faced pressure to resign earlier this year after being accused of giving misleading information to MEPs and failing to recruit much needed Frontex officers.
Frontex has also been investigated by the EU’s fraud watchdog over allegations that its own officers were involved in pushbacks. Activists have called for the agency to be abolished.
Ms Strik’s report cites “a series of cases of alleged fundamental rights violations, pushbacks and collective expulsions at EU external borders” reported by NGOs such as Amnesty International that were “generally disregarded” by Frontex.
Despite the evidence at its disposal, the report says Frontex “did not prevent these [human rights] violations” during operations under its “joint control” and “failed to address and follow-up on these violations promptly, vigilantly and effectively”.
Frontex released a statement dismissing the report, stating that its authors had themselves concluded “there is no evidence of the agency’s involvement in any violation of human rights”.
Erik Marquardt MEP, a German Green and member of the European Parliament’s Frontex oversight committee, responded on Twitter it was “quite disturbing to read that the Agency is trying to reinterpret out report”.
There have been repeated claims of EU Member States, including Greece and Hungary, illegally pushing back migrants. Pushbacks in Greece are “sometimes undertaken by unidentified forces wearing uniforms and masks and carrying weapons”, the report’s authors state.
Claims of human rights violations have been considently denied by Greek authorities.