The European Parliament is stepping up action to shed light on the allegations surrounding Frontex, the EU’s border control agency. Frontex is being probed over harassment, misconduct and unlawful operations aimed at stopping migrants from reaching EU shores via Greek waters.
Members of the European Parliament have formed a new working group, officially called Frontex Scrutiny Working Group (FSWG), to “monitor all aspects of the functioning of the border agency, including its compliance with fundamental rights.”
The legislators will personally conduct a fact-finding investigation over the next four months in order to collect evidence to determine if the violations took place and if the agency was involved in them.
The body comprises 14 MEPs, two from each political party. Roberta Metsola, a Maltese MEP from the European People's Party, has been elected chair.
"We will be seeking clarity and confidence in Europe’s border management policy and strategy. That means we will be asking everybody all the questions we have so that we get clear answers," Metsola told Euronews.
One of the first stops of the working group, Metsola says, will be a trip to Warsaw, where the agency's headquarters are located, to put questions directly to its top management and staff.
"This parliament has supported the agency, it understands that Europe needs a strong external border management policy, we must have strong defence of fundamental rights and it is those points feature in all the questions we will place," she remarks.
Dragoș Tudorache, a liberal MEP from Romania and also a member of the FSWG, says the immediate objective of the investigation will be to examine the Aegean Sea allegations. But, he adds, the mission will also look into the general functioning of the agency and the changes it has gone through in recent years.
"For us it is really important to look not only to testimonies of Frontex itself, but also on the operating rules and the rules of engagement of the member states themselves that are either part of the operations or that are hosting the operations of Frontex," Tudorache told Euronews.
"Our idea is to have a composite view, as broad as possible, so we can base our findings on strong evidence and credible testimony."
Legislators will draw on the work of experts, journalists, civil society and researchers to draft a report with conclusions and recommendations. The European Commission and national authorities will be also be quizzed by the MEPs.
If the working group concludes that the agency committed or was complicit in the human rights abuses, it could bring a motion for resolution to the European Parliament's plenary.
Moreover, MEPs could use the EU budget as leverage for change. The EU treaties grant parliamentarians the power to approve the annual financial plans of the bloc, in a process known as "discharge". The budget contains the financing of all EU agencies, including that of Frontex, which has significantly increased since the 2015 migration crisis.
Patience is wearing thin in Brussels over the agency's apparent reluctance to come clean about the allegations, which first came to light in October 2020.
The latest move from the hemicycle follows the investigations launched by OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud office, and by the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly. The three institutions are looking into the same charges concerning Frontex, but from different angles.
Socialist MEPs have previously demanded the resignation of Fabrice Leggeri, the agency's executive director, for failing to provide sufficient clarifications.
Leggeri has repeatedly denied any direct or indirect involvement of Frontex in the pushbacks.
Last week, Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, sent a letter to the Committee on Civil Liberties of the European Parliament claiming that Leggeri had offered MEPs a “misleading” presentation of the facts.
Johansson also accused the agency of “hampering” and “delaying” the full implementation of a 2019 regulation. According to this framework, Frontex is supposed to have hired 40 agents to monitor fundamental rights in its operations by December 2020. As of today, the agency has failed to recruit a single one.
The commissioner doubled down on her critical rhetoric during a closed-door hearing at the European Parliament on Monday. “Rapid growth of Frontex is a challenge that is manageable and not the reason for the shortcomings,” she is reported to have said.
Fabrice Leggeri struck back in an interview with a Spanish newspaper published that same day. “Frontex has done its work in 2020, has fulfilled [its mission] and is credible, and therefore, my management is credible,” he declared.
Frontex is also under pressure from international NGOs and the United Nations.
Earlier this month, a collective of human rights lawyers initiated legal action against the agency, calling for an immediate suspension of its activities in the Aegean Sea. The group threatens to go to the European Court of Justice if Leggeri refuses to respond.
Meanwhile, the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) released a statement demanding an end to pushbacks and violence against migrants at the EU external borders.
“The use of excessive force and violence against civilians is unjustifiable,” said IOM Chief of Staff Eugenio Ambrosi.
“States’ sovereignty – including their competence to maintain the integrity of their borders – must be aligned with their obligations under international law and respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all.”
For its part, Frontex has been carrying out an internal investigation into the Aegean Sea allegations.
In late January, the agency's management board concluded that out of the 13 incidents being reviewed, eight should be closed because there is no evidence of fundamental rights violations while five should remain open and require further inquiry.
The management board, which is composed of representatives from member states, also noted that Frontex didn't provide information on three particular incidents and asked Leggeri to immediately do so. It also urged implementation of reforms.
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.