• Rory O'Keeffe, Koraki

OLAF publication indicates catastrophe for Frontex, Greece, EU Commission

The publication of the OLAF report into Frontex contains little we did not already know. But it does demand answers to the questions why is Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis still in a job? And why is he not facing trial for systematic, prolonged illegal behaviour resulting in people’s deaths?

The EU Commission’s leaders must also face difficult questions about their roles, their aptitude for them, and what exactly they have been being paid for.

German newspaper Der Spiegel – following months of reporting headed by Giorgos Christides and Steffen Ludke – has published the OLAF report into Frontex’ activities in full.

It is extraordinarily bad news not only for the EU’s border agency, but also for Greece’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis and the entire Greek government.

Indeed, it is also, at least by default, extremely damning of the European Commission, and particularly its Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, Vice President for ‘Protecting our European Way of Life’ Maragaritas Schinas, and indeed the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

At some point over the next few days we will consider putting together a piece on the report as issued by Spiegel (it is 123 pages long and we haven’t read it all yet, though we have published it here). But we have previously noted its contents and what they mean.

In short, the document, using 20 witnesses and research carried out over many months, shows with clear proof that Frontex, the EU ‘border agency’ carried out pushbacks, funded the Greek government to carry out pushbacks, removed its officers so they could not witness Greek pushbacks and deliberately covered up and lied about pushbacks carried out against people who had travelled to Greece.

It also, as the lawyer Laura Salzano, notes, shows that Frontex claimed – and set excuses in advance – that it should be allowed to keep documents and incriminating evidence confidential, and detailed its deliberate withdrawal of surveillance from the Aegean to enable Greek uniformed servicepeople to illegally push people back without witnesses.

We must be as clear as we possibly can here: this is no longer ‘deniable’.

The work of organisations such as Aegean Boat Report and even to some extent reporters from around the world, has always been if not brushed off then certainly strenuously denied and then ignored by the EU Commission as well as the Greek government, despite all of it, always, being true.

But OLAF is the EU’s own legal body. It is there to ensure the EU follows its own and international law.

What we have seen so far is an effort by the EU Commission to ‘hide’ – both itself and the report – by refusing to issue it publicly.

The report has been available to the Commission since the end of February – for almost eight months – but no action has been taken and no member of the public was allowed to see it before today.

This is unacceptable for three reasons. First, it appears to be an attempt to hide the fact that Frontex, the Greek government and the EU itself is breaking the law – its own and international law. Second, it appears that the Commission has decided to hide it and its agencies’ activities from the European public – an unacceptable breach of democratic practice – and third, it seems that the Commission is attempting to escape both holding its agency to account, but also escaping being punished itself, simply by attempting to hide the reality of what it has done.

The report, and perhaps more significantly what news reporters were able to find out about it two full months after it was issued to the Commission, was enough to force Frontex’ director Fabrice Leggeri to resign (he made a series of sadly believable claims that he had in fact only done what he was told was Frontex’ job).

But this goes far, far further. The report clearly shows that not only Frontex, but also the Greek government, have been systematically pushing people back from Greece, in direct contravention of EU law. It shows that action must be taken against not just Leggeri, who has at least stepped away in disgrace, but also against the Greek government, particularly, but by no means solely, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis whose policy the pushbacks are.

It raises questions about the EU Commission’s behaviour, including how it answers to the public, and why it tries not to do so.

And it very clearly implicates the Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, to whom Frontex is supposed to answer, the Commission’s Vice president for ‘Protecting Our European Way of Life’ Margaritis Schinas, to whom Johansson reports, and who is paid – extremely handsomely – to have responsibility for all that happens in his portfolio, including Frontex’ activities, and arguably also the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, whose responsibility is for all Commission affairs and has overseen more than two and a half years of systematic, consistent, beating, sexual assault of, robbery from, and pushing back of men, women and children, some of whom have been killed, in direct contravention of not just international, EU and Greek law on refugees, but the most basic laws against murder, sexual and other assault, and robbery, in every country on Earth.

Explaining their decision to publish the report – which, we must note, required many hours of work from Spiegel employees who typed the report in full so it could be publicly-shared – Christides and Ludke said:

The OLAF report led to Leggeri's resignation in spring 2022. But what the investigators have uncovered goes far beyond questions of individual liability. Even though it wasn’t the main focus of the investigation, the report relentlessly exposes how Greek border guards in the Aegean Sea abandon refugees at sea on inflatable life rafts to prevent them from exercising their right to apply for asylum.

Numerous media outlets, including DER SPIEGEL, revealed the illegal practice of pushbacks of refugees at Europe's external borders to the public many months ago, but the Greek government has nonetheless dismissed the reports as "fake news."

The report is of great public interest in that it provides the best foundations yet for Europeans to debate how asylum-seekers should be treated at their borders.

The secrecy surrounding the report serves primarily to prevent such a debate from taking place. To this day, leading Greek officials claim they haven't read the report. European Commissioner Margaritis Schinas of Greece, whose portfolio includes migration, won't say whether he has informed himself of the serious allegations. And Aija Kalnaja, Frontex's interim executive director, continues to pretend, unchallenged to this day, that her agency has followed all the rules. "We would like to reiterate that Frontex's actions in the Aegean Sea region had been carried out in compliance with the applicable legal framework," the agency stated last week.

But that version of events doesn't jibe with the contents of the report from the OLAF investigation.

In recent years, Frontex's annual budget has grown from an initial 6 million euros to 754 million euros. Budget discussions are currently taking place in closed meetings to determine how many millions more the agency will receive in 2023.

The question in the coming years will be whether taxpayer money will continue to be used to help break the law at the EU's borders – or whether Frontex will be forced to comply with European law. The Schengen states, which control Frontex through the Management Board, apparently have little interest in such compliance. They meet behind closed doors, and little is known about their discussions. Much will therefore depend on whether some sort of European public sphere develops to address Frontex activities and helps control the agency.

The entire situation, from the Greek government and Frontex’ collusion to carry out despicable and illegal activities, including the apparent EU Commission decision to allow them, to its definite efforts to hide the report and its contents from the public must never be allowed to happen again.

What absolutely must happen – at an absolute minimum – is:

von der Leyen, the Nea Dimokratia member and defender Schinas (who should really never have been allowed to take the position he holds given his clear conflict of interest), and Johansson (who has at least had the decency to publicly speak against pushbacks from Greece on occasion, but whose words have had absolutely no effect) must all face serious and engaged inquiries into whether they should retain their positions.

The Commission itself must pass laws to ensure it never again tries to hide detrimental reports from the public.

The entire purpose – and continued existence – of Frontex must be seriously considered and wide-ranging changes made to ensure its outrages against the law, against human decency, and indeed against humanity, are never repeated.

And at the very least, Notis Mitarachis must be removed from his position and his ministry prevented from ever again carrying out anything like this disgrace. In an ideal world, he and others should face trial for their activities – breaking laws in place at every level of human society -and the Nea Dimokratia government should resign in disgrace.

We must make no mistake. An EU member state and the bloc’s border agency colluded to break the law over a prolonged period. The EU overseers at best allowed this, and at worst encouraged or perhaps ordered it to happen.

To pretend this is anything other than extremely serious, or indeed anything other than absolutely unacceptable, would be a ludicrous decision, and one which will permanently – perhaps devastatingly – damage what remains of the EU’s reputation.

It will confirm that Greece, Frontex, and the EU, are the modern world’s barbarians. That they steal from, assault and in several cases kill, innocent men, women and children.

This has been a prolonged and horrific disgrace.

It must be dealt with, and never allowed to happen again.

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