Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri and victims of pushbacks: Abandoned and set adrift in the Aegean Sea

Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri and victims of pushbacks: Abandoned and set adrift in the Aegean Sea

Foto: [M] DER SPIEGEL; Emrah Gurel / AP; Getty Images;

Classified Database Frontex Involved in Illegal Pushbacks of Hundreds of Refugees

An extended investigation over the course of several months reveals how deeply the EU's border agency, Frontex, is involved in the Greek refugee pushback campaign. The illegal acts are registered and concealed in a classified database.

Amjad Naim had almost reached Samos when the men wearing the balaclavas arrived. It was May 13, 2020, and Naim was sitting in an unstable rubber dinghy. The Palestinian had been on his way to Greece together with nearly 30 other refugees. He could already see the coast, he would later recall by telephone. In just a few meters, his journey would be complete.

Naim heard the noise of a helicopter overhead. Then a large boat approached. Naim remembers the Greek flag on the ship and the dinghies. He says the hooded men then attacked.

Naim says the men shot into the water, struck the boat with a hook and destroyed the engine, stopping the vessel. Only then, he says, did they take the refugees on board. Naim was crying, he hid his mobile phone in his underpants.

The next images that exist of Naim document a crime. Naim filmed for 55 seconds. The images show him and the other refugees on two inflatable life rafts being abandoned at sea by the Greek Coast Guard. The square platform they are sitting on is a wobbly rubber life raft without a motor.

A Greek Panther Coast Guard ship, 18 meters long, pulls the life raft toward Turkey. Another ship accompanies the boat on its mission. The video also shows water seeping into Naim’s raft.

Then, as can be seen in the video, the Greek Coast Guard unties the rope, leaving the refugees to their fates in the middle of the Aegean. It would be several hours before the Turkish Coast Guard rescued the frightened and thirsty refugees.

What Amjad Naim filmed that morning is what human rights activist call a pushback: Asylum-seekers are abandoned at sea at the European Union’s external border, outside Greek territorial waters. That way, they can’t apply for asylum in the EU. Such operations are illegal and violate international, European and Greek law. The Greek Coast Guard has been systematically carrying out these pushbacks since March 2020, with the help of the EU’s Frontex border protection agency.

Over the past two years, DER SPIEGEL has gathered solid evidence of these legal violations . Naim’s case shows that German Federal Police officers in the Frontex mission are also involved in the pushbacks. Frontex officials find the boats and then leave it to the Greeks to conduct the pushback.

The Joint Operations Reporting Application (JORA) database hosted on Frontex's servers is used to record events at the EU's external borders. The contents of the database are classified, only European border guards have access to the data. An entry also exists for the incident involving Naim.

"Prevention of Departure"

The entry states that a German helicopter as well as a patrol boat from the Federal Police on Frontex duty spotted the refugee boat that day in Turkish waters. The German police then reported it to the joint control center in Piraeus, and the Greeks in turn informed the Turkish Coast Guard. And that was it. Allegedly.

The incident is registered as "prevention of departure" in the Frontex database. The term is actually only supposed to be used when the Turkish Coast Guard stops refugee boats in Turkish waters. But that isn’t what happened. Naim had clearly been in Greek waters, and he should have been permitted to apply for asylum in that country.

There is no mention in the database of the arrival and attack by the Greek border guards in the immediate vicinity of Samos, the unstable life rafts or the pushback, all of which are clearly captured on video. The description of the incident is clearly false.

Afghan refugees on a Greek life raft: There have been hundreds of victims of pushbacks.

Afghan refugees on a Greek life raft: There have been hundreds of victims of pushbacks.

Foto: Emrah Gurel / AP

DER SPIEGEL, together with Lighthouse Reports, the Swiss media outlets SRF and Republik and the French newspaper Le Monde spent months researching Frontex’s involvement in the Greek pushbacks. Following a request under the European Freedom of Information Act, the researchers succeeded in gaining access to the internal Frontex database and matching entries with photos and videos of pushback operations. The research reveals the full extent of Frontex support for Greek pushbacks in the Aegean Sea for the first time.

The research shows that Frontex was involved in the illegal pushbacks of at least 957 refugees between March 2020 and September 2021. In 22 of these cases, the availability of open source intelligence like photos of the refugees in Greek life rafts, make it possible to define them as pushbacks without any doubt. The true number of pushbacks conducted with Frontex assistance is likely even higher.

The reporting also shows that these pushbacks are neatly recorded in the database, but always with the false, inconspicuous term "prevention of departure." In other words, the JORA database is being fudged. The database of one of Europe’s biggest agencies, originally intended to provide an accurate picture of the situation at EU borders, has instead become a tool for covering up the Greek pushbacks as well as the complicity of an EU agency.

Those Who Make It To Land Have To Hide

The coast of Lesbos is located only a few kilometers away from Turkey. During the wave of refugees to Europe in 2015, helpers here greeted refugees with thermal blankets. They were heartbreaking scenes. Many of the people who helped still talk about it today, and they were proud to be a part of European hospitality towards those in need. Today, when refugees come to Lesbos, they have to hide on the coast. They all know what they might face if members of the Greek Coast Guard catch them.

On May 28, 2021, a large group of nearly 50 people made it to the island. Photos show how the frightened people hid in the bushes. "We are in the forest. We need your help," they wrote to the NGO Aegean Boat Report, which often keeps in touch with asylum-seekers who dare to make the Aegean crossing. Two of them were sick, the refugees wrote. The location they shared via WhatsApp showed them as being not far from Mytilene, the island's capital. "We're afraid," they wrote. But only a few hours later, some members of the group found themselves back on the water, abandoned on one of the Greek Coast Guard’s life rafts. In the photo, several people can be clearly discerned who had demonstrably been on land before. Only 17 people made it past the Greek police into the refugee camp, where they were allowed to apply for asylum.

The Frontex database also whitewashes this pushback. The database entry states that Frontex had been involved in the incident, with the corresponding checkmark set. It lists 32 refugees at 1 p.m., with the Turkish coastal town of Çeşme listed as the location. Once again, it is labelled as a case of "prevention of departure." Yet no one had prevented the refugees’ departure. They had all made it to Lesbos unscathed.

The JORA database has more than 1 million rows and 137 columns. It was set up as a record of the work performed by Frontex. Each entry shows how important the border protection force is and how well the millions in taxpayer money are invested. The entries in the database are first made by Greek officials and then checked several times. After that, they are sent to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw, where officials validate the entries. If they are wrong or inconsistent, they have to be corrected – at least in theory. In practice, however, it appears that they are simply rubber stamped. That includes two instances where it was proven that refugees had already reached Greek islands.

The official version given in these cases is always the same. The wording is identical: They state that refugees had been discovered either by Frontex or Greek forces. And that headquarters in Piraeus had informed the sea rescue control center in Ankara. After that, a ship from the Turkish Coast Guard came and "took over responsibility of the incident." There don’t appear to be any pushbacks in the Frontex database, refugees turn back voluntarily with their boats or are at least intercepted without the intervention of the Greek Coast Guard. It’s a glimpse into an alternative reality.

Officials certainly have an appropriate category available to them in the JORA database: "illegal border crossing." According to the research, however, they only use this category in the few cases where asylum-seekers are registered in a Greek refugee camp and are allowed to apply for asylum. In pushback cases, they cover up the fact that these refugees had already crossed the border, so they won’t have to explain themselves later.

Insufficient Oversight

Even the people who are tasked with oversight at Frontex took notice that the information in the database was at times wrong. In two incidents, the Frontex Management Board found that they had been registered in JORA as "prevention of departure" incidents, even though the refugees had already made it to Greek waters. That was "inconsistent," the Frontex management board noted at the time in its report, which DER SPIEGEL has obtained. The agency’s fundamental rights officer also called the classification "questionable." But no one was apparently interested in taking a closer look.

When contacted by DER SPIEGEL for comment, Frontex said it is not in a position to comment on individual cases and specific operational details for its ongoing and past operations. The agency says that it has no power to investigate actions of the national authorities, and that it is under Greek command in the Aegean Sea. The German Federal Police say they are not aware of having been involved in any incident that may have been given the false "prevention of departure" classification. Meanwhile, the Greek Coast Guard stressed that pushbacks were not part of its operational plan. It added that all complaints would be investigated by the relevant Greek authorities.

A dinghy carrying refugees just off the coast of Lesbos: There have been few arrivals since March 2020

A dinghy carrying refugees just off the coast of Lesbos: There have been few arrivals since March 2020

Foto: Michael Varaklas / AP

Behind closed doors, however, some border guards admit that the database is systematically whitewashed. Two Frontex officials and a member of the Greek Coast Guard, both of whom asked not to be named, told DER SPEIGEL that illegal pushbacks are routinely registered as "prevention of departure" incidents. "Why don’t they call it pushbacks and get it over with?" the Coast Guard member asked.

Pressure Mounting on Frontex Chief

The person responsible for the fact that Greek pushbacks are being covered up at Frontex is Fabrice Leggeri. The 54-year-old Frenchman has been executive director of the EU agency since 2015 and has bestowed the agency with new powers during his tenure. Its budget has grown enormously under his leadership to its current level of 758 million euros. The question is how Frontex is supposed to wield its power: Is the agency supposed to assist illegal operations at Europe's external borders – or is it supposed to investigate and prevent such crimes, as is stipulated in the EU agency’s statutes?

Greece is one of Leggeri’s most important partners. Almost no other region plays host to as many Frontex officers, a testament to the fact that the country is one of the important migration routes to the EU. Leggeri gets on very well with the conservative Greek government, and at conferences, he can be seen joking with Notis Mitarachi, Greece’s migration minister. Mitarachi, a hardliner, symbolizes the Greek pushback campaign like nobody else. In late January, Mitarachi gave the Frontex chief an award for his efforts. Thanks to Leggeri’s support, he said, the number of refugee arrivals in Greece is lower than it has been in years.

Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri: The agency's reputation has taken a hit

Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri: The agency's reputation has taken a hit

Foto: Hristo Rusev / Getty Images

Leggeri has been under pressure for months as a result of the reporting conducted by DER SPIEGEL and its partners. To this day, Leggeri has not acknowledged that pushbacks are taking place in the Aegean Sea. In response, the European Parliament set up a permanent review committee and froze 12 percent of Frontex’s budget. For the first time, a pushback victim has now moved forward to sue the agency. And on May 15, Swiss citizens will even vote in a referendum on whether they want to continue contributing to the agency’s increased budget. The pushbacks have become a major topic of discussion in that campaign. The agency’s reputation has taken a significant hit.

But Leggeri’s biggest problem is OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud agency. Investigators with that agency intervene whenever EU rules have been broken by officials, and they began looking into Frontex following the revelations published by DER SPIEGEL. In a recent investigative report, they lodged serious allegations against three leading Frontex officials, likely including Leggeri. According to the report, the officials covered up pushbacks and violated EU regulations. The more than 200-page report is still classified, with only the agency’s management board and those accused of misdeeds allowed to see it. The investigative report apparently has made Frontex so uncomfortable that the agency has forbidden OLAF investigators from handing it over to the European Parliament.

Leggeri’s concerns are understandable. OLAF searched his office as well as that of his closest confidant, Thibauld de la Haye Jousselin. And the anti-fraud investigators continue to investigate. They have already announced two further reports. Even if Leggeri were to manage to remain in office for the time being, his days as the agency’s head are likely numbered.

The latest revelations could further exacerbate Leggeri’s already delicate situation. Some 222 of the entries in the JORA database up to September of last year are listed as "prevention of departure" incidents. Many of them are likely pushbacks.

Leggeri himself could easily have noticed that his own database was being fudged. In several pushback cases in which Leggeri had to testify in the European Parliament or in front of the Frontex Management Board, the description provided in the JORA database obviously had nothing to do with reality. But it appears that he wasn't bothered.

With additional reporting by Htet Aung, Bashar Deeb, Emmanuel Freudenthal, Gabriele Gatti and Francesca Pierigh