One can see anxiety written on the face of the young woman, her hair pulled back tight into a ponytail. On this September morning (19/9/2022), she is standing at a tiny airport in Alexandroupolis, a strategically important Greek port some 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from the Turkish border, where she is an operations manager for the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, or Frontex, keeping watch over the 200-kilometer-long border along the Evros River. Much like other spots along the EU's external border, asylum seekers have complained about police abuse and illegal pushbacks here.
Since most of the media's attention has been focused on maritime borders near the islands of Lesbos and Samos, Frontex and Greek border agents have been able to go about their work here on the Evros undisturbed.
But today, the operations manager stands before a group of journalists accompanying four EU parliamentarians on a fact-finding mission. One of those parliamentarians is Tineke Strik, a Dutch Green Party politician and professor for citizenship and migration. She is one of Frontex's most prominent critics and one of only a handful of European lawmakers who openly criticizes countries such as Greece, Hungary or Croatia for denying people in need access to the European asylum system — at times by violently turning them away at the EU border.
Some 62 Frontex officers and four translators are deployed on the Evros. Asked by journalists about human rights abuses in the area, the operations manager says: "Frontex is not active in every area. We plan our deployments in accordance with requests made by member states." Later she says, "You need to understand that our activities are always carried out under the command and direction of our Greek colleagues."
Then Tineke Strik asks if Frontex specifically asked Greek colleagues for access to areas where pushbacks were said to be taking place. Another Frontex official hesitates before answering: "We were not denied access to certain areas but our personnel is limited to certain fields of activity. Greek authorities know better what their needs are."
What are the accusations against Frontex?
Frontex has faced criticism for quite some time. Founded in 2004, the EU border agency has been accused of human rights abuses and illegally repatriating refugees. This spring, Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri resigned. An explosive report by the European Anti-Fraud Office OLAF, finished at the beginning of the year and recently made public by the German weekly magazine "Der Spiegel" and the NGO FragDenStaat (Ask the State), makes it clear why he stepped down. The report accuses Frontex of misleading oversight committees, intimidating employees and knowingly covering up crimes.
For months, OLAF investigators questioned employees and victims about suspicious cases, evaluated data, and analyzed e-mails and WhatsApp chats. They proved that border patrol agents intentionally looked the other way — human rights violations were reported to the leadership, but the commanding officers did not inform the Fundamental Rights Officer. Chats and e-mails between Frontex agents showed that many cases were played down or covered up, as well as being hidden from officials responsible for protecting basic rights.
A long list of rights violations
The list of violations of European law, human rights, maritime law and Frontex's own guidelines is long. Omer Shatz, a human rights activists and the legal affairs director of the NGO front-LEX, has called for Frontex to be immediately recalled from the border between Greece and Turkey: "The director must end a mission as soon as serious or regular violations are found in connection to Frontex activities." The OLAF report shows that Frontex was aware of numerous crimes and covered them up, Shatz told DW.
"There were mass numbers of pushbacks and even deaths — people who died because their clothes were taken from them … a common practice," emphasized Shatz. Despite overwhelming evidence, Greek authorities continue to insist that they abide by standing law at the border. Frontex shuns responsibility, too.
Shatz says he sees a strategy. "Every time we confront the Greek government they say: We are simply abiding by Frontex regulations," he criticizes. Thus, Athens is using the border agency to legitimize systematic legal violations committed by its own agencies.
Is there hope Frontex can be improved?
Conservative EU parliamentarians such as EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson see no need to end the Frontex mission nor for further reforms now that Director Leggeri and two other high-ranking officials have stepped down.
Tineke Strik thinks that is a mistake. She is calling for transparent processes, independent oversight and access to sensitive regions: "Frontex must demand full cooperation in investigations and full access to all areas and available information pertaining to joint operations from member states where missions are taking place."
Frontex agents meeting with EU parliamentarian at the Evros acknowledge that authorities charged with upholding fundamental rights do not have access to militarily restricted areas. But that is where the pushbacks are said to be happening. Strik and her colleagues were denied access during their visit, too. "Frontex is only deployed to areas where pushbacks are not taking place and Greek authorities can do whatever they want," Strik tells DW.
She is calling for the European Commission to more openly criticize member states who sit on Frontex's administrative board. One cannot expect any substantial improvement if pushbacks are tacitly accepted she says. "Member states must openly criticize EU countries that are constantly confronted with pushback accusations."
With an annual 2022 budget of €754 million ($736.4 million), Frontex is the most well-financed agency in the European Union. Strik says those funds must come with requirements, "The European Commission should make border patrol financing contingent upon upholding human rights."
This article was translated from German by Jon Shelton