Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, has called on Frontex, the EU’s border agency, to clarify accusations of involvement in migrant pushbacks.
Frontex is currently under investigation by the EU's anti-fraud watchdog (OLAF) over allegations of harassment, misconduct and unlawful operations aimed at stopping migrants from reaching EU shores.
In an interview with Euronews, Commissioner Johansson, whose portfolio encompasses migration policy, expressed concern about these allegations and urged Frontex to address them as soon as possible. She also demanded changes in the agency’s internal functioning, including its reporting system.
“It's important both to clarify if there have been any pushbacks that they have been taking part in, but also equally important is to make sure that we have the proper functioning, the proper routines, the proper way of reporting in Frontex”, she said.
“There is a problem that, the 40 fundamental rights monitors that should’ve been in place in early December, we have zero. And also for the deputies [Deputy Executive Directors], which should be three deputies, there are zero.”
The commissioner denied that these failings originate from the rapid budget increase that Frontex has experienced in recent years, particularly after the 2015 migration crisis.
“I don't think that is a problem of the speed. I think there has been enough time to recruit these people and set up this functioning. I don't think it's fair to say that there wasn't time enough to do that.”
Johansson expects the agency’s management board and executive director, Fabrice Leggeri, to shed light on the veracity of the allegations and put forward recommendations to improve the agency’s operations.
“It’s of the utmost importance that there should be no shadow of doubt in any functioning of this agency,” Johansson remarked. “We really need a strong Frontex. We really need them to protect our borders and our values. And there could be no room for mistrust from citizens, from member states, from the commission towards Frontex, because that will weaken the agency.”
Asked if the EU’s hardened line on migration might have played a part in the alleged pushbacks, Johansson replied there was no contradiction between protecting the EU's external borders and respecting the EU’s fundamental values.
Commissioner Johansson told Euronews that she first heard about the allegations when they emerged late last year.
In October 2020, German magazine Der Spiegelpublished a report accusing Frontex of being complicit in and aware of pushbacks at the EU's external borders.
The article detailed several incidents where the Greek authorities had pushed back migrants to Turkey. The New York Timesobtained documents containing similar claims. A Swedish team that had participated in a border operation said it was asked not to report any violations that it had witnessed.
The media reports led to a heated hearing in the European Parliament where some MEPs demanded the resignation of the agency’s director. MEPs were left unsatisfied by the answers provided by Fabrice Leggeri.
“We have not found evidence that there was active direct or indirect participation of Frontex staff or officers deployed by Frontex in pushbacks,” Leggeri said during the hearing. In parallel, OLAF opened an investigation into Frontex to examine the accusations.
Migrant pushbacks are illegal under international law. The principle of non-refoulement is codified in Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention. “No contracting state shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” the text reads. Additionally, Article 5 of the Frontex Code of Conduct asserts full compliance with the principle.