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Frontex – Fabrice Leggeri resigns as a consequence of OLAF investigation and journalistic consortium report

On April 28, 2022, the Head of the Frontex (European Border and Coast Guard Agency) Fabrice Leggeri resigned. It was the result of two investigations: the OLAF anti-fraud investigation and reports on human rights violations published by a consortium of journalists. Groups of investigative journalists such as Bellingcat had already written about the irregularities in the activities of Frontex and its potential violations of international law in the past occasions. For years, however, the agency denied the alleged activities, which included, among others, the use of push-backs and the inhumane treatment of people who seek asylum in Europe.

The investigation led by journalists (Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, SRF Rundschau, Republik and Le Monde) revealed illegal push-backs (from Greece to Turkey) that senior leadership - as   claimed - knew about. Journalists found 145 of such cases, which were described as "prevention of departures".  According to journalists, there were at least 22 cases during which asylum seekers were transported from pontoons to life rafts  and left drifting at sea. There have also been cases where asylum seekers made  it to the land on Lesbos (which has been documented and proven), and later the Turkish Coast Guard found them back at sea drifting on life rafts. According to Frontex, it was one of the "prevention of departure" cases. Journalists also discovered inconsistencies in Frontex database (JORA), despite the fact that it undergoes many verifications: they found cases registered as "prevention of departure", although asylum seekers reached European waters.

Although these illegal activities are a serious problem and should be the subject of widespread concern and condemnation, they may not have in themselves led to the resignation of Leggeri (who denies allegations made by journalists), as the motivation behind his decision was the results of the investigation led by OLAF (EU's anti-fraud agency), which called for a disciplinary action. The investigation had been conducted for over a year. The resignation was preceded by a meeting of the Frontex board, at which representatives of member states presented various positions. Greece, Poland and Hungary were among the defenders of Leggeri, but many countries spoke out against him.

According to what journalists have learned from unofficial sources (the OLAF investigation has not been made public), Leggeri had been accused of concealing human rights violations and improperly disposing of European funds. There are also internal problems related to the workplace culture and treatment of employees, as well as problems with the recruitment system. Investigations also found that the internal systems to improve Frontex's performance and monitor human rights issues proved to be largely superficial and ineffective. Moreover,  the Frontex Management Board’s decision has been released that in 2023 lethal and non-lethal weapons and ammunition are planned to be included in Frontex equipment.
The change Frontex is now facing is the first of such an importance for a long time, as Leggeri has been its director since 2015, when the agency began to grow rapidly (although it had existed since 2004, before 2015 its activities had been much more limited). Aija Kalnaja, the deputy of the former director, took over for a temporary period. It is emphasized that future changes of Frontex structures must be thorough as the problems are systemic and run very deep. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations indicate that the role of Frontex in the migration system should be carefully considered, agency’s activity should be more transparent, held accountable for violations and should focus on developing more effective mechanisms to prevent such situations in the future. There are also voices such as the one of Tineke Strik, the Dutch MEP, who even talks about the need to suspend Frontex operations in Greece. Some officials also hope that Leggeri's resignation is an opportunity for a "fresh start" - transparency and law enforcement.

Until now, Frontex has argued that it maintains the highest standards in conducting its operations and that it does not have sufficient powers to control the activities of border states, which absolves it of its responsibility. Leggeri himself had previously faced criticism from the European Parliament and - as it has been said louder recently - he did not have a lot of credibility. However, according to Nikolai Nielsen, EU Observer commentator, the blame for the current situation also lies with the EU itself. Over the last few years, we have been observing an increasing standardization of push-back method. This is visible, for example, on the Polish-Belarusian border, where the European Commission has not taken any legal measures to punish the use of this illegal method. In the context of not very favorable opinions on accepting refugees from the South, EU representatives praise the border states for their protection and thank them for „being a shield". Border protection at all costs is at the heart of the agency, so for real changes to take place, a change of leadership cannot become the only solution implemented.


Dominika Kulig