EU’s border chief resigns after reports of migrant pushbacks

AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File
FILE – Fabrice Leggeri, Executive Director of Frontex, attends a meeting of EU Interior ministers at the EU Council building in Brussels on Dec. 2, 2019. The head of the European Union’s border agency has offered to resign after allegations that Frontex was involved in illegal pushbacks of migrants, according to the European Commission and a German Interior Ministry spokesperson.

BRUSSELS (AP) — The head of the European Union’s border agency resigned immediately Friday, the bloc’s executive said. The move followed media allegations that his agency was involved in illegal pushbacks of migrants who were trying to reach Europe.

Pushbacks — forcing would-be refugees away from a border before they can reach a country and claim asylum — are considered violations of international refugee protection agreements, which say people shouldn’t be expelled or returned to a country where their life and safety might be in danger due to their race, religion, nationality or being members of a social or political group.

The EU Commission said it “takes note of the resignation” of Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri following a day of speculation about his fate. The announcement came after the board of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex, met on whether to accept his offer to resign.

Leggeri, who had been under mounting pressure to resign for months, offered to resign a day after a media investigation this week suggested that Frontex’s database recorded illegal pushbacks in the Aegean Sea as “prevention of departure” incidents. Leggeri had previously denied wrongdoing.

Last year, the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, OLAF, opened an investigation into Frontex over allegations of harassment, misconduct and migrant pushbacks.

German Interior Ministry spokesperson Maximilian Kall said replacing Leggeri offers the border agency an opportunity for a “fresh start.”

“It offers the possibility of fully resolving the allegations, creating complete transparency and ensuring that all missions by Frontex occur in full conformity with European law,” he said.

The Commission said “Frontex fulfils a critically important task to support member states, manage common European Union external borders, and to uphold fundamental rights in doing so.”

Leggeri had led Frontex since the 2015, when well over 1 million people, many of them refugees fleeing war in Syria, entered the bloc.

According to a joint investigation this week by Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, SRF Rundschau, Republik and Le Monde, Frontex has been involved in the pushbacks of at least 957 asylum-seekers in the Aegean Sea between March 2020 and September 2021.

In contrast, the European Court of Human Rights has held that undocumented migrants should be provided with information, care and have their asylum claims processed.

European lawmakers have asked for part of Frontex’s budget to be frozen until improvements are made, including setting up a mechanism for reporting serious incidents on the EU’s external borders and establishing a system for monitoring fundamental rights.

Birgit Sippel, a home affairs spokesperson for the Socialists and Democrats group at the European Parliament, called Leggeri’s departure “a long overdue development, after years of constant allegations of pushbacks and violations of human rights.”

A German non-governmental organization, Pro Asyl, also welcomed Leggeri’s offer to step down.

“It’s scandalous that the director of an EU agency hid human rights abuses for years, manipulated evidence and lied to Parliament,” said Pro Asyl’s Europe leader, Karl Kopp.

Kopp called for independent oversight of Frontex to ensure that it acts in compliance with EU and international laws in the future. His organization said Frontex’s areas of responsibility should be reduced and its budget of about 750 million euros a year “massively cut.”