In an event which should, to be honest, have happened at least two years ago, the Director of Frontex, the EU’s border force, has tendered his resignation.
Fabrice Leggeri offered his resignation this morning, following the latest in a series of revelations that the border force knew of – and in many cases was directly involved in – very many of the more than 1,154 illegal pushbacks in the Aegean Sea, in which tens of thousands of people have been illegally forced out of Greece into Turkey, carried out since 1 March 2020.
We must note that Frontex was certainly also at least aware of repeated pushbacks at Greece’s ‘land’ border with Turkey, on the Polish border with Belarus, and in many locations in the Balkans.
We have written, repeatedly and at length, regarding the Greek and Polish government’s pushbacks of refugees at their borders, and from within their territories. I personally also run the ‘End Pushbacks Now’ campaign, though of course the statistical and reporting work on which that campaign relies is carried out by dedicated bodies including Aegean Boat Report and Lighthouse Reports, both of which have been directly engaged and involved in highlighting Frontex’ illegal activities in the last 25 months.
The two organisations played a great part in the most recent revelations (Wednesday 27 April 2022 Frontex ‘involved in’ almost 1,000 pushbacks from Greece in 2020-21), in which Lighthouse Reports joined Der Spiegel, Le Monde and Rundschau to show that even according to its own records, Frontex took part in and/or observed at least 957 people being pushed back from Greece between 1 March 2020 and 30 September 2021.
From all perspectives – including the simple fact that Frontex has been breaking laws based on common human decency and morality for no other reason than its own power and position – Leggeri’s resignation is a good thing.
However, there are several factors to be considered.
The first of these is that unless Frontex is disbanded or at the very least absolutely restructured, the resignation is likely to change almost nothing ‘on the ground’. Not only will Frontex not have changed very much, but neither will any of the groups ‘overseeing’, equipping, funding and in some cases controlling it.
In essence, Leggeri’s resignation is welcome and positive, but it is also the absolute least that had to happen. He, as head of the organisation was paid the most, but with that wage also came ‘responsibility’. As in so many cases, the word ‘responsibility’ did not mean ‘to make Frontex a better agency’ or even ‘to ensure Frontex at least abided by international law’ but ‘if you get caught, you resign’.
And this leads us to a second, vital point: Frontex is responsible for its actions, and Leggeri is the personification of those ‘responsibilities’ but Frontex did not act alone, and nor – probably – did it set its own agenda. Indeed, absolutely no-one who has been involved in the European border issue for the last decade would even suggest that Frontex was the main operator, let alone ‘led’, the bloc’s vicious, illegal and barbaric activities.
In his (brief) resignation letter, Leggeri wrote: ‘I give my mandate back to the Management Board as it seems the Frontex mandate on which I was elected and renewed in June 2019 has silently but effectively been changed’.
This could, of course, simply be a spiteful response to Leggeri being informed that his position was untenable – the investigations by Lighthouse et.al. were paralleled by another carried out by the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog OLAF, which found Leggeri and two other high-ranking Frontex executives were guilty of lying about the agency’s activities, of covering up member states’ lawbreaking, and of lying to the European Parliament about both matters. (Thursday 17 March 2022 Frontex chief at heart of cover-up for which OLAF demands disciplinary action) (Thursday 31 March 2022 ‘More than enough evidence’ of pushbacks from Greece – EU anti-fraud office)
But unfortunately – for the EU and for many (perhaps most) of its member states – the sad fact is that it is all too easy to believe that Leggeri may have been told that Frontex’ duty was not, as it should have been, to ensure the law was followed and people protected at EU borders, but to stop people entering and carry out or at least turn a blind eye to people who had entered EU territory being ejected from it.
Evidence for this includes the fact that in early March 2020, just days after the Greek government had used its uniformed forces to open fire (with tear gas and rubber bullets) on men, women and children attempting to enter Greece from Turkey to find safe places to live, learn and work (one of these people was killed by being shot in the neck), the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Greece and, in the presence of representatives of its far-Right government, declared ‘Greece is our shield’.
Another piece is that even at the height of the OLAF investigation, and as the Lighthouse et. al. investigations were ongoing (let alone the reports of Aegean Boat Report proving the scope of the Greek pushbacks policy), the Greek government sent the country’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis to the Delphi Economic Forum to publicly praise Leggeri for the ‘services’ he offered Greece in ‘dealing with the migration crisis’.
Equally, as we have noted on several occasions (including 16 November 2021 EU’s refugee policy is to let people suffer on borders), the EU’s staff, if not all of its elected politicians, are known to regularly use the phrase ‘Angela was wrong’ in conversations about ‘immigration’ to the EU.
This is in reference to the moment in 2015 when then German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Germany and the EU ‘we can do this!’ referring to her country’s and the EU’s ability to welcome and assist men, women and children who wished to enter the EU to escape chaos, terror, torture and death in their homelands (the fact that 'Angela' was in fact right makes the EU staffer’s statement more grimly ironic even than the note that all Merkel was doing was suggesting that the EU and its member states obeyed international law)
Whether this ‘proves’ Leggeri’s comments about his ‘mandate’ to be true is one issue (clearly it does not) but the simple fact is that we should be able to dismiss as nonsense the idea that the EU – which demands to be seen and treated as if it were a promoter and protector of international law and human rights – might have given the head of its border agency a mandate to illegally push people back from EU borders and ignore and cover up EU states’ repeated pushbacks.
But it is not. It is, sadly, all too believable, and indeed likely, that it did exactly that.
Equally, we must note that in the 25 months from 1 March 2020 to 31 March 2022, we know for certain that the Greek government has pushed back at least 28,966 people from the Aegean and its islands alone.
We can also be sure that it has pushed back thousands more on its ‘land’ (Evros river) border with Turkey, and this is to deliberately discount the situation in February 2020 when it used violence and firearms to push back at least 5,000 men, women and children. It is also to discount the fact that at least 25,434 people rescued by the Greek Coastguard in 2021 alone, according to Greek Shipping Minister Giannis Plakiotakis, seem to be ‘missing’ from the Greek asylum system.
The Greek government, Nea Dimokratia, spent four years in opposition telling Greek people that refugees were ‘not really refugees’ and that they posed a threat to Greek lifestyles, Greek livelihoods and Greek lives (since it has come into power, the party has in fact carried out attacks on the first two, and may yet prove to significantly damage the third). And the last time it held outright power its treatment of refugees was so awful that several EU member states refused to return people who had fled Greece because of it. Mitarachis himself has consistently worked to mislead the Greek public about the contents of the Refugee Convention and Protocols, to try to pretend his ministry and government’s lawbreaking is acceptable.
We know, too, that the Polish government carried out thousands of pushbacks into Belarus, and is continuing to do so, even as it, too, spreads a far-Right message of lack of tolerance to new arrivals and lies about international law to excuse its consistent breaking of it.
That is, even while we acknowledge and condemn Leggeri and Frontex’ activities, and the part played by the former in the latter, we cannot pretend that Frontex will change unless the EU carries out a fundamental restructure, including clear and public policies it is expected to follow and duties it must carry out.
And we cannot pretend that Frontex was ‘the’ – rather than just ‘a’ – problem.
The EU’s own policies and activities, as well as those enthusiastically and viciously carried out by the Greek government in particular, but many others as well, are the reason why we are here today.
Mitarachis, Mitsotakis, Von der Leyen and others must consider their attitudes, whether they are responsible enough to hold their positions, and take the appropriate action when they realise that they are not: that they are recklessly attacking international law and are literally killing people by doing so.
Leggeri has resigned. It is welcome, but changes nothing. The leaders of the EU Commission and Greek government must follow suit, and Frontex must be disbanded or fundamentally restructured and repurposed.