Breaking Laws at the Borders Why DER SPIEGEL Is Publishing the EU Investigative Report on Pushbacks

The EU border agency Frontex has sought to cover up human rights violations for several years, but an investigation by the European anti-fraud office OLAF has exposed the treatment of refugees at Europe's frontiers. DER SPIEGEL is publishing the report in its entirety.
Dumped in the Aegean Sea: refugees on an inflatable rescue raft

Dumped in the Aegean Sea: refugees on an inflatable rescue raft

[M] Lea Rossa / DER SPIEGEL; Fotos: Emrah Gurel / AP; European Anti-Fraud Office

The report is composed of 20 witness interviews, includes months of investigative work and fills more than 120 pages: The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) has been thorough. Investigators searched the offices belonging to the leadership team of then-Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri and they scoured WhatsApp messages and emails.

The OLAF report led to Leggeri's resignation in spring 2022. But what the investigators have uncovered goes far beyond questions of individual liability. Even though it wasn’t the main focus of the investigation, the report relentlessly exposes how Greek border guards in the Aegean Sea abandon refugees at sea on inflatable life rafts to prevent them from exercising their right to apply for asylum.

Numerous media outlets, including DER SPIEGEL, revealed the illegal practice of pushbacks of refugees  at Europe's external borders to the public many months ago, but the Greek government has nonetheless dismissed the reports as "fake news."

At the same time, the OLAF report shows how Frontex, the European border agency, has been complicit in these egregious human rights violations.

  • In repeat incidents, Frontex management withheld cases of possible human rights violations from its own fundamental rights officer.

  • The agency suspended its aerial surveillance to stop recording violations of the law.

  • It co-financed some of the Greek units that carried out the pushbacks.

  • According to the report, it misled the bodies that are responsible for overseeing the agency.

  • And although it should be clear after reading the report that the pushbacks were of a "serious nature or are likely to persist," Frontex did not terminate the joint operations as stipulated by Article 46 of the agency's regulations.

You can download the full report here.

OLAF-Untersuchungsbericht To protect the sources, SPIEGEL and FragDenStaat have manually typed up the report, parts of which have been redacted, and are publishing it in a similar layout.
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Thus far, access to the report has been restricted to very few people, including representatives of the European Commission, the Frontex Management Board, some members of the European Parliament and OLAF itself. DER SPIEGEL, together with Lighthouse Reports, first reported on the report's contents in July (read more about the allegations here ). Today, DER SPIEGEL, together with FragDenStaat , a German website focused on the publication of government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, is publishing the OLAF report. The report is of great public interest in that it provides the best foundations yet for Europeans to debate how asylum-seekers should be treated at their borders.

A Lawsuit Against Frontex's Interim Head

The secrecy surrounding the report serves primarily to prevent such a debate from taking place. To this day, leading Greek officials claim they haven't read the report. European Commissioner Margaritis Schinas of Greece, whose portfolio includes migration, won't say whether he has informed himself of the serious allegations. And Aija Kalnaja, Frontex's interim executive director, continues to pretend, unchallenged to this day, that her agency has followed all the rules. "We would like to reiterate that Frontex's actions in the Aegean Sea region had been carried out in compliance with the applicable legal framework," the agency stated  last week.

But that version of events doesn't jibe with the contents of the report from the OLAF investigation.

Some experts, including lawyer Laura Salzano, argue  that the European Union should release the report publicly – in part so that victims of the pushbacks can use the findings in court. And it is quite possible that will happen soon. Lawyers with the NGO front-LEX have already filed a complaint with the European Court of Justice based on the report's findings.

In recent years, Frontex's annual budget has grown from an initial 6 million euros to 754 million euros. Budget discussions are currently taking place in closed meetings to determine how many millions more the agency will receive in 2023.

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. They meet behind closed doors, and little is known about their discussions. Much will therefore depend on whether some sort of European public sphere develops to address Frontex activities and helps control the agency.

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