BY ERALP YARAR
The series of conducts done by the previous management of the European Union Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) subjected to the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) investigation are alarming and deplorable, Tomas Zdechovsky, a member of the European Parliament has told Daily Sabah.
Responding to a question via e-mail, Zdechovsky said: “It is by no means true that the EU is going along with it.”
“On the contrary, the EU bodies rang the alarm and demanded immediate action against the former management, who was well aware of Frontex’s role in the said cases. The working culture of the previous management is now gone. Today, there are new control mechanisms in place to make sure that the FROs have access to all the information necessary to scrutiny the border operations, as well as to the operational areas in agreement with the host member states and cooperate closely with the operational staff of the agency,” he added.
The new management takes its responsibility extremely seriously and is determined to reestablish Frontex as a potent and competent agency that shall provide the member states with all the support necessary to protect the EU’s borders, Zdechovsky stated.
The recent report by the OLAF on the EU border protection agency Frontex provides a snapshot of a series of events that transpired from spring to late autumn in 2020 in the context of alleged violations of fundamental rights, the agency’s executive management has also told Daily Sabah adding that any wrongdoings are “practices of the past.”
Frontex Media and Public Relations Office responded in a press statement via e-mail that aside from findings on serious misbehavior and misconduct of several individuals employed by the agency in relation to Frontex operational activities in Greece in 2020, the report identifies three key issues.
“Firstly, the Fundamental Rights Officer was prevented from accessing operational information, which is contrary to the provisions of the 2019 Regulation of the European Border and Coast Guard. Secondly, the Fundamental Rights Officer was not assigned as a case-handler for reports on serious incidents with alleged violations of Fundamental Rights. Thirdly, staff doing their job, assuming responsibility, following procedure and reporting these types of serious incidents to the hierarchy, were blatantly ignored by individuals who have been investigated by OLAF.”
“These were practices of the past,” the agency underlined.
The agency takes the findings of investigations, audits and other forms of scrutiny seriously and uses them as opportunities to make changes for the better, the Frontex office said, expressing commitment to deliver a well-functioning and legally compliant agency that adheres to the best practices of good governance.
“In troubled times as the once Europe and its neighbors are facing right now, this is more important than ever. As has been demonstrated since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the agency has been able to reinforce the authorities of member states at the external borders by re-deploying the European Border and Coast Guard Standing Corps at short notice, sometimes in a matter of days, to deal with the increasingly complex situation at the external borders, which sees escalated instrumentalization of migrants, energy and food. This shows the added value that the agency brings to member states and the agency intends to continue to hone its ability to support when they need it the most,” it added.
The European Union’s border agency has been covering up illegal pushbacks of migrants by the Greek Coast Guard into Turkish territorial waters, a report by the bloc’s anti-fraud office revealed recently.
According to the report by OLAF, Frontex has been withholding cases of possible human rights violations from its own fundamental rights officers, suspending aerial surveillance to avoid recording illegal activities, co-financing Greek units that carried out pushbacks, and misleading the authorities responsible for overseeing the agency.
The report highlighted that principal Greek officials claim they haven’t read the report and European Commissioner Margaritis Schinas of Greece, whose portfolio includes migration, declined to comment on whether he was informed himself of the allegations.
Human rights defenders, however, call on the EU to officially release the report to allow pushback victims to use its findings in court cases, it added.
“The question in the coming years will be whether taxpayer money will continue to be used to help break the law at the EU’s borders — or whether Frontex will be forced to comply with European law. The Schengen states, which control Frontex through the Management Board, apparently have little interest in such compliance,” said the report.
In recent years, Frontex has come under fire for alleged mistreatment of migrants, often endangering their lives. Türkiye and global rights groups have repeatedly condemned Greece’s illegal practice of pushing back asylum seekers, saying it violates humanitarian values and international law by endangering the lives of vulnerable migrants, including women and children. Earlier this year, Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri resigned amid the scandal. Human rights groups have also documented other human rights violations on EU borders where Frontex operates.
“Frontex has repeatedly failed to take effective action when allegations of human rights violations are brought to its attention,” said Eva Cosse, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“Its rapid growth into an executive agency of the EU, with increased powers, funding, and legal responsibilities, makes it all the more urgent for Frontex to put in place effective tools to safeguard fundamental rights.”
Moreover, the European Parliament last Tuesday refused to approve the 2020 budget of the Frontex over reports of human rights violations.
“Total of 345 MEPs voted in favor of the committee recommendation to refuse discharge to Frontex, 284 voted against (in favor of granting discharge) and eight abstained,” said a European Parliament statement.
Earlier this month, members of the Budgetary Control Committee recommended against clearing the 2020 budget for Frontex citing the “magnitude of the committed serious misconduct” and possible structural problems under the previous executive director of the agency, the statement said.
“The agency failed to protect the fundamental rights of migrants and asylum seekers and, according to a media report, was involved in the illegal pushbacks of at least 957 refugees between March 2020 and September 2021,” it added.
The suicide of a staff member, which was “related to alleged practices of sexual harassment,” also shocked members of the European Parliament, the statement said, adding of the 17 sexual harassment incidents filed to the agency in 2020, 15 were adjudicated without further action.
EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said on Monday she was “shocked” over a recent report on Frontex that said the EU border protection agency covered up Greece’s illegal pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea.
Johansson told European Parliament members in Brussels that they took the issue seriously since allegations of Greece pushing migrants back to Türkiye first emerged.
In February, the OLAF prepared a report on Frontex’s role in violating fundamental rights at the EU’s external borders.
Johansson said the report revealed the personal mismanagement of three people from Frontex management, including the then director.
Stressing that Frontex has an important responsibility to protect fundamental human rights while safeguarding the EU’s external borders, she said the previous administration’s abuse of power is a very serious issue.
This has damaged the institution’s prospects of fulfilling its mandate, she added.