According to a joint investigation by Lighthouse Reports, several European broadcasters and news organizations, Frontex' very own records appear to show evidence of pushbacks in the Aegean, carried out by Greek authorities. The investigation has prompted Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri to tender his resignation.
Fabrice Leggeri, the head of Frontex, the European border agency, handed in his resignation after an investigation by Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, SRF Rundschau, Republik, Le Monde and The Guardian, which appears to show that Frontex has been involved with -- or has witnessed -- the pushbacks of "at least 957 asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea between March 2020 and September 2021."
After the investigating team sent a freedom of information request to Frontex, they received a redacted version of its internal incident report database, called Jora. In the database, Frontex agents had recorded "sightings of asylum seeker pushbacks in the Aegean being labeled by officials as 'prevention of departure,'" reported The Guardian.
According to Frontex, 'prevention of departure' is defined as "an incident when migrants are stopped at sea by non-European country authorities in their territorial waters and sent back to their point of departure."
145 incidents recorded
In the database, 145 such incidents were recorded. The Guardian reports that the team then cross-referenced these reports with data from the Turkish coastguard, eyewitness statements and various "leaked documents." They found that in "at least 22 incidents, asylum seekers were taken off dinghies, put into Greek life rafts and left adrift at sea."
NGOs have been collecting eyewitness reports from migrants who claim they were pushed back for several years now.
In January 2022, the human rights organization Aegean Boat Report published a blog in which they accused the Greek authorities of pushing back 25 Afghan migrants after they had landed on the island of Lesbos, in Greece.
In a similar incident, on May 28, 2021, Aegean Boat Report detailed the fate of 50 asylum seekers who had also landed on Lesbos and had contacted the NGO, only to be put into orange life rafts and, a few hours later, picked up by the Turkish coastguard at sea.
This, reports the Guardian, was recorded as a "prevention of departure," on the Frontex database.
'Prevention of departure'
The Guardian reports that "two Frontex sources" claimed that pushbacks were recorded in the Jora database as "prevention of departure."
The Dutch Green MEP (Member of the European Parliament) Tineke Strik has long been outspoken on migrant issues. She called for the head of Frontex Fabrice Leggeri to resign since he had "lost credibility in taking fundamental rights seriously."
On Friday, April 29, Strik tweeted that she was "waiting for confirmation" reagarding Leggeri's resignation. In Strik's opinion, this would be the "only chance Frontex [has] for prioritizing fundamental rights and prevent violations instead of covering them up."
Leggeri offers resignation
A few hours later, Strik retweeted a tweet from Steffen Lüdke at Der Spiegel. In his tweet, Lüdke attached a copy of a letter that "according to information [from Der Spiegel and Lighthouse Reports]," Leggeri had sent to the Frontex management board.
In the letter, Leggeri says that he would like to "give my mandate back to the Management Board as it seems that Frontex mandate on which I have been elected and renewed in June 2019 has silently but effectively been changed."
Leggeri did not specify how or why that mandate had been changed, but Lüdke said that the board were due to meet at "11am this morning to discuss" the resignation. Strik commented that the "next director must make this a top priority." She added that the European Commission also needed to "stop impunity at the borders."
The offer of resignation was confirmed by several news agencies. The Associated Press (AP) added that a German interior ministry spokesperson, Maximilian Kall, also confirmed the board meeting to have taken place to "consider the situation."
Leggeri had been under pressure to resign for several months. Last year, the EU's anti-fraud watchdog OLAF, began investigating allegations of pushbacks as well as harassment and misconduct at Frontex. This report, wrote the news agency Reuters, has not yet been made public.
However, in early March 2022, OLAF did allege that "that three members of the senior management deliberately did not classify pushback cases as human rights violations," according to a report in Der Spiegel. OLAF then recommended that Frontex' management board take disciplinary action against the three. The allegations were part of a 200-page report from OLAF, but the three senior managers' identity was not revealed.
No comment was forthcoming from Frontex, and Reuters reported that Leggeri was attending the board meeting and was also "not immediately available for comment."
In February 2022, the same investigative group published another report about how pushbacks in the Aegean could have resulted in the deaths of at least two men originally from West Africa. According to the investigation published on Lighthouse Reports, in September 2021, "the bodies of Sidy Keita from Ivory Coast and Didier Martial Kouamou Nana from Cameroon washed up on the Turkish coast."
The two men, write the investigative journalists, had been "alive and well on the Greek island of Samos just days before, according to multiple witnesses." One eyewitness described how the two men were captured by Greek authorities on the island and "made to board a speedboat and then thrown overboard off the coast of Turkey."
Did pushbacks lead to drowning?
Journalists from Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, The Guardian and Mediapart then attempted to reconstruct the men's final days, talking to as many witnesses as possible. They "found evidence that suggests the men drowned because of a new tactic by the Greek coastguard of throwing small groups of asylum seekers overboard and making them swim to Turkey."
Although the journalists say that they cannot verify the only eyewitness account they have been given -- that of the sole survivor who says he was also thrown into the sea along with Didier and Sidy -- they said that his account was corroborated by other records such as weather reports for the day and accounts from the Turkish coastguard after they had found Sidy's body on the shore.
Two Greek officials, who had testified anonymously to the investigative team, also confirmed that "what Ibrahim described had happened before to asylum seekers." The reason, they said, was the fact that the Greek authorities tried to avoid using life rafts "because they were expensive and any public tender for their replacement might raise questions about their use."
The Greek authorities have repeatedly denied being involved in any pushbacks, or acting in any way outside both European and international law. A Greek investigation also found no evidence of pushback claims.
The former Greek finance minister and economist, Yanis Varoufakis, tweeted on hearing news that Leggeri had tendered his resignation that this would not "be enough".
"Leggeri and his colleagues should face prosecution for crimes against humanity. Alongside politicians who encouraged this hideous policy."