MEPs refuse to approve Frontex's 2020 budget over human rights abuse reports

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By Alice Tidey  & Sándor Zsíros
Members of the Frontex from Portugal rescue 56 people who were lost in an open sea as they try to approach on a dinghy the Greek island of Lesbos, on Dec. 8, 2015.
Members of the Frontex from Portugal rescue 56 people who were lost in an open sea as they try to approach on a dinghy the Greek island of Lesbos, on Dec. 8, 2015.   -  Copyright  AP Photo/Santi Palacios

European lawmakers on Tuesday refused to approve the 2020 budget of the bloc's external border agency over serious misconduct allegations.

MEPs in Strasbourg voted against the discharge with a 345 to 284 votes margin in a largely symbolic move as it should not result in any penalty budget-wise for Frontex.

In May, they had postponed the vote demanding instead to see a report into alleged human rights violations against migrants.

The discharge procedure is the Parliament's final approval of how the EU budget for a specific year has been implemented. If MEPs refuse to grant a discharge of funds, the EU agency concerned must act on the Parliament's recommendations before seeking the discharge again.

The report from the bloc's anti-fraud office, OLAF, was completed in February after a year-long investigation but kept confidential.

It was leaked in full last week and detailed how Frontex managers committed “serious misconduct and other irregularities" in covering up pushback incidents -- the illegal practice of forcing back migrants who have reached EU territory, whether on land or at sea -- or failed to investigate them properly.

Members of the Budgetary Control Committee recommended earlier this month against clearing the 2020 budget for Frontex citing the “magnitude of the committed serious misconduct” and possible structural problems under the previous executive director of the agency.

They also expressed "shock and deep concern about the case of suicide of a staff member, related to alleged practices of sexual harassment". However, they welcomed the new interim leadership and its decision to reopen the cases.

Former chief Fabrice Leggeri resigned from his post in April, a day after a consortium of European media organisation released an investigation that found the agency's staff forced back at least 957 asylum seekers in the Aegean sea between March 2020 and September 2021 and recorded at least 22 pushbacks as "prevention of departure".

The Greens/EFA group welcomed the result of the vote, highlighting that "Frontex is the most EU-funded agency" and accusing the Commission of "turning a blind eye" to the human rights abuses carried out at the border in a petition.

The group is calling on the EU's executive to take countries in which such abuses have been recorded to the EU Court of Justice and to withhold funding.

They cite Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Spain as member states in which "threats, physical violence, assault and abuse during detention or transportation" have been observed.

Malin Björk from The Left group told Euronews that "Frontex has to clean up its own house."

"Of course, the director and the leadership of Frontex has a big role to play, but also the board where all the member states are represented, they have to take a much bigger role as well as the European Commission so that's the message we want to send."

"I think the discharge is a way of signalling: How are you using public money? And if an agency set up to uphold EU law and the respect for human rights is actually part of the problem and abusing human rights instead of upholding them, then I think the budget is exactly the right way to act," she added.

Some MEPs however have argued that the discharge is a financial issue and that the allegations of human rights abuse are a completely different matter.

These include Manfred Weber, the head of the European People's Party (EPP), who told Euronews that "the discharge is about the management of money."

"And there are no complaints, nobody has a reason to go against the discharge for Frontex. That's why the European People's Party group will support the discharge today.

"The others are not doing so and that means they have more political complaints about what is going on. That is not correct in our thinking. We should show solidarity. We should also show support for our officers on the external borders because they are protecting our border," he said.