EU border agency chief resigns over migrant pushback claims

Forcing would-be refugees away from a border is considered a violation of international refugee protection agreements.

Migrants and refugees arrive in a dinghy accompanied by a Frontex vessel near the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey in 2020
Migrants and refugees arrive in a dinghy accompanied by a Frontex vessel near the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey in 2020 [File: Michael Varaklas/AP Photo]

The head of the European Union’s border protection agency has resigned following allegations that the agency was involved in illegally forcing migrants and refugees back from Europe’s borders.

The board of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex, said on Friday that it accepted the resignation of Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri.

Last year, the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, OLAF, opened an investigation into Frontex, over allegations of harassment, misconduct and migrant pushbacks.

Forcing would-be refugees away from a border – known as pushback – before they can reach a country and claim asylum, is considered a violation of international refugee protection agreements, which say people should not be expelled or returned to a country where their life and safety might be in danger.

Frontex’s management board said Leggeri was given the opportunity to comment on the findings contained in the OLAF report at the start of a two-day extraordinary meeting on Thursday.

“On the first day of the meeting, [Leggeri] declared his resignation from all his functions with immediate effect and his intention to terminate his employment in the Agency. The Management Board took note of his intentions and concluded that the employment has therefore come to an end,” Frontex said in a statement.

“Aija Kalnaja as the most senior Deputy Executive Director will deputise for the vacant Executive Director function and assume the lead of the Agency with immediate effect,” the organisation said.

Frontex supervises the enforcement of the EU’s external borders and those of countries that participate in Europe’s visa-free Schengen area.

Frontex has been involved in the pushbacks of at least 957 asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea between March 2020 and September 2021, according to a joint investigation this week by Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, SRF Rundschau, Republik and Le Monde. The investigation suggested that Frontex’s database recorded illegal pushbacks in the Aegean Sea as “prevention of departure” incidents.

In the statement announcing Leggeri’s resignation, Frontex said “effective border control and the protection of fundamental rights are fully compatible”.

German Federal Ministry of the Interior spokesman Maximilian Kall told reporters earlier on Friday that replacing Leggeri would offer an opportunity for a “fresh start” at Frontex.

“It offers the possibility of fully resolving the allegations, creating complete transparency and ensuring that all missions by Frontex occur in full conformity with European law,” he said.

Mounting pressure

Leggeri has been under mounting pressure to resign for several months.

Frontex has repeatedly been accused by aid groups of illegally returning migrants and refugees across EU borders – or of turning a blind eye when national authorities themselves carried out such “pushbacks”. Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey have been a major focus of such allegations.

Leggeri had previously denied wrongdoing. His seven years as Frontex chief coincided with a significant increase in resources for the agency and repeated political scares over migrant arrivals in Europe.

The agency reported last week that irregular crossings into the EU were at their highest in six years in the January-March quarter this year, with 40,300 entries.

The biggest numbers of irregular crossings were detected coming from the Western Balkans, mostly entering the EU via Greece and Bulgaria. They accounted for about half of all irregular entries, with the main migrant nationalities being Syrian and Afghan.

In recent months, Leggeri publicly acknowledged confusion over whether his role was to hinder migrants’ entry to Europe or to oversee national border agencies’ treatment of asylum seekers. He said in December that he was “helpless” to work out his true mission.

“Between the imperative not to allow people to cross irregularly and the other, the principle of non-refoulement (which forbids pushbacks) as everyone in need of protection has the right to asylum, how should we act?” he said, according to the AFP news agency.

“No one can give me the answer. We’re schizophrenic.”

The European Court of Human Rights has held that undocumented migrants and refugees should be provided with information and care, and have their asylum claims processed.

European Commission spokeswoman Anitta Hipper said Frontex’s role was to protect borders and fundamental rights.

Leggeri “never understood that Frontex must protect fundamental rights in all its actions”, Dutch Member of European Parliament Tineke Strik commented on Twitter.

“Next director must make this a top priority.”

European legislators have asked for part of Frontex’s budget to be frozen until improvements are made, including setting up a mechanism for reporting serious incidents on the EU’s external borders and establishing a system for monitoring fundamental rights.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies