Third Update: 15 July 2021
As the Parliament reached its last week before going into summer recess, we finalised the report of the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group (FSWG). After 4 months of fact-finding, 8 hearings with key actors, a so-called “digital working visit” to Frontex Headquarters and countless bilateral coffee appointments and phone calls, this was the week in which it all had to come together, and so it did in my presentation of the final report in front of the LIBE Committee.
The European Parliament’s Civil Liberty committee LIBE decided to set up an investigative working group on Frontex last February. This was decided following the findings of a collective of investigative journalists who discovered Frontex complicity in fundamental rights violations, and many more worrying signals coming from the Agency. The main task of our group was thus to conduct a fact-finding investigation towards Frontex involvement, awareness, or failure to respond or act in cases of Fundamental Rights violations. We also looked at possible underlying problems by scrutinizing internal management structures, procedures for reporting and the handling of complaints. The last part of the mandate was to give recommendations for the future.
Looking back, I must say that the cooperation with Frontex was not always smooth. While Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri already enjoyed quite the reputation from his previous encounters with the Parliament, (in which he withheld information and knowingly shared false information in front of the LIBE Committee) this time he explicitly promised his full cooperation with the Scrutiny Group during our first hearing on the 4th of March.
Despite his promise, we encountered a different kind of attitude in our engagements with his Agency throughout this process. Deadlines for our information requests and written questions were exceeded, putting further pressure on our tight 4-month mandate. Answers to our questions were vague and evasive, batches of documents were incomplete and chaotic, and sometimes the information provided was even directly contradicting input by acknowledged actors like UNHCR. To me, the only effect of his attitude throughout the scrutiny was generating extra proof of his incapability to effectively lead the largest EU Agency and implement the needed cultural changes to fully endorse fundamental rights as a priority for Frontex.
In the concluding report, you will read that a majority of the group found that Frontex failed to live up to its responsibilities to protect fundamental rights at Europe’s external borders. In any event, the Agency was aware of Fundamental Rights violations taking place at the external borders, to which it failed to respond or act. Internal and external reports were ignored, and the Agency’s Fundamental Rights Officer was given the cold shoulder after putting forward multiple warning signs to Mr Leggeri. Internal structures for incident reporting are insufficiently available and withal ineffective.
The report puts forward many concrete recommendations on the way to improve the Agency’s structure and overall culture, to ensure that reporting mechanisms are fully functioning and fundamental rights become a cornerstone of Frontex operations and activities, as it should according to its own Regulation.
But in order to implement these changes, capable management is highly needed. We found that Frontex’s Management Board failed to effectively fulfil its supervisory role to safeguard good governance. Given the composition of the MB, all Member States are to blame for this failure and should rethink their contingents to these meetings. Further, it can be questioned whether the Commission should leave the largest EU Agency with such an autonomous governance structure.
While the report does not go as far as saying that the Executive Director needs to be replaced, to me, it is the only logical conclusion that can be drawn. He failed to effectively implement the previous regulations and implement fundamental rights into the core functioning of the Agency, and during this scrutiny, he gave us no reasons to believe that he is capable of undertaking the fundamental changes needed to drastically improve Frontex.
After summer, the LIBE Committee will have to consider whether it puts forward a resolution based on the findings of the report. In any case, given the permanent nature of the FSWG, we will continue our efforts in scrutinizing the Agency and its approach towards fundamental rights. Definitely more to follow after summer recess.
Please read the full report here and feel free to leave your observations in the comment section.
Second Update: 28 May 2021
The fact finding of the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group is still ongoing. After the kick-off meeting with Frontex and the Commission, we have had exchanges with the Management Board, several legal experts, NGOs (working in Greece and Hungary) and a former official of the Maltese border guard. Last week, we had a meeting with the EU Ombudsman and the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) in order to get more information regarding their investigations towards the Agency, which are currently ongoing. Whereas these are both bodies with different competences and tools at their disposal, their work could be an important source of information for our investigation into Frontex.
Further, in a different exchange, the ad interim Fundamental Rights Officer will be invited to inform the scrutiny group about its’ current role within Frontex, the functioning of current complaint procedures of such as the Serious Incident Reports (SIR) and the Agency’s treatment of other signals of human rights violations at the external borders. It is vital for us to know if the FRO is sufficiently equipped to ensure an effective and independent assessment of reports on the role of Frontex in alleged human rights violations. In addition to that, we want to understand the role of the FRO towards allegations of human rights violations by EU Member States: does the FRO assess reports of NGOs, national monitoring bodies and UNHCR on pushbacks by the Member States? This information is necessary to fully grasp how Frontex fulfills its obligation of Article 46 of the Frontex Regulation. This article obliges Frontex to suspend or withdraw from operations in Member States which violate human rights obligations. Does the FRO monitor compliance by the Member States? Is it sensitive to signals of unlawfulness? And if so, how is this assessment (accompanied with a recommendation) being followed up by the Executive Director?
So a lot still needs to be clarified. Apart from hearings, we recently received a large number of documents from Frontex and the European Commission, in response to our requests. We are closely analysing these documents, and we already followed up with Written Questions for further clarification where needed.
Below you can find the work programme of the meetings of the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group:
Meeting 1. 04 March 2021
- Ylva Johansson - Commissioner for Home Affairs, European Commission
- Fabrice Leggeri - Executive Director, Frontex
You can re-watch it here: : https://multimedia.europarl.europa.eu/en/libe-working-group-on-frontex-scrutiny-meeting-exchange-of-views-with-ylva-johansson-european-commissioner-for-home-affairs-and-fabrice-leggeri-frontex_I202958-V_v
Meeting 2. 15 March 2021
Exchange of Views with Frontex: Setting the scene with the official reports
- Marko Gasperlin - Chair of the Frontex Management Board
- Patrik Engstrom - Member of the Frontex Management Board
- Ana Cristina Jorge - Head of the Operational Response Division
Meeting 3. 23 April 2021
Exchange of Views: Legal Experts & NGO Panel
- Minos Mouzourakis – Refugee Support Aegean
- Andras Lederer - Hungarian Helsinki Committee
- Professor Jorrit Rijpma - Professor of European law at Leiden University
- Professor Takis Tridimas - Professor of European Law at King's College London
Meeting 4. 29 April 2021
Exchange of Views: Legal Experts & Crew Panel
- Professor Daniel Thym – University of Konstanz
- Professor Melanie Flink – University of Leiden
- Martin Cauchi Inglott – Former Commander of the Maltese Navy/Coast Guard
Meeting 5. 10 May LIBE Committee
Exchange of Views: Panel of Journalists
- Klaas van Dijken – Lighthouse Reports
- Steffen Lüdke - Der Spiegel
Meeting 6. 21 May
Exchange of Views: Panel with EU Ombudsman and FRA
- Emily O'Reilly – EU Ombudsman
- Adriano Silvestri – Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA)
Meeting 7. 3 June
Exchange of Views: Panel with Italian Coast Guars, new appointed Fundamental Rights Officer and the Consultative Forum of Frontex
- C.A. (CP) Sergio Liardo - Head of Plans and Operations Department of the Italian Coast Guard
- Mr Jonas Grimheden - Fundamental Rights Officer, Frontex
- Ms Aydan Iyigüngör - Project Manager, Asylum and Migration, Technical Assistance and Capacity Building Unit, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) - Co-Chair of the Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights of Frontex
- Ms Sophie Magennis - Head of Policy and Legal Support, Regional Representation for EU Affairs, UNHCR - Co-Chair of the Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights of Frontex
Meeting 8. 17 June
Exchange of Views among the Members of the Parliament of the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group to discuss the first draft of the report
You can re-watch it here: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/committees/en/libe/meetings/webstreaming
Meeting 9. 23 June
Final Exchange of Views: Panel with Commissioner Johansson, Executive Director Leggeri and Portugese Minister Cabrita
- Ylva Johansson - Commissioner for Home Affairs, European Commission
- Fabrice Leggeri - Executive Director, Frontex
- Eduardo Cabrita - Portuguese Minister for Home Affairs
First Update: 22 March 2021
Following the allegations against border control agency Frontex and its presumed role in the illegal pushback of migrants, the European Parliament has decided to establish a permanent Scrutiny Group for Frontex. While this Scrutiny Group will cover all aspects of Frontex and its functioning, the Working Group is explicitly tasked with an inquiry on the current allegations. I have been appointed rapporteur to this inquiry. On this website I will publish regular updates regarding the process and the evolution of the work of the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group.
The mandate clarifies that we have to assess all the different situations in which Frontex could have been confronted with (allegations of) human rights violations by Member States. Our main objective is to find out if Frontex complies with its obligations relating to human rights, including promoting respect for human rights and ensuring that the Agency does not operate in a Member State where fundamental rights are violated. This obligation, laid down in Article 46 of the Frontex Regulation, demands that the Agency should give high priority to any indication of human rights violation. This implies that there should be a low threshold for serious incidents reports for border guards, an easily accessible and independent complaint mechanism for people subject to violations, and that any indication regarding possible violations is taken extremely seriously. It goes without saying that this also implies that Frontex should be taking adequate measures in case a Member State or a deployed border guard is involved in pushbacks or other human rights violations.
In order to draw clear conclusions on how Frontex performs regarding human rights, we will analyse the different national contexts in which the presumed violations took place. Not only will we scrutinise the situation on the Greek borders, but we will investigate the situation in countries such as Hungary (where Frontex has been active for years despite well-known human rights violations), Croatia (where it gave aerial support to the Croatian border guards on the ground, which are accused of violent pushbacks), and Frontex's performance in the Mediterranean Sea.
The investigation began with an exchange of views with the Executive Director of Frontex Fabrice Leggeri and the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson. Last week we held a hearing with the Management Board of Frontex about the results of their internal inquiry into their alleged complicity in the pushbacks in Greece. Unfortunately, the Management Board's final report, instead of providing answers, leads to more questions. For instance, the sources on which the Board draws its conclusions seems highly biased. It seems that the Management Board took all statements of the Greek authorities for granted, and the chair confirmed that by saying: how could I not trust my direct colleague?
The final report also lacks clear conclusions on the fulfillment of Article 46's human rights obligations. Quite on the contrary, as the report questions the current rules and procedures it has to follow when intercepting boats with migrants at sea, by asking for a legal opinion from the Commission on this matter. Thankfully the Commission made very clear that Member States should carry out an individual assessment before they send migrants back to a third country.
Of course, Frontex should not divert from the main issue by questioning the legal framework, instead it should take its responsibility and make sure that human rights are respected. When the EU's Member States are accused of violations in pushing back migrants, we should be able to rely on the EU Agency Frontex to uphold our values and rights. As the European Commission and the EU's Member States are ultimately accountable for the work carried out by Frontex, they should no longer turn a blind eye, but firmly show that human rights violations are no longer tolerated.