ATHENS – Ville Itälä , head of the European Union’s anti-fraud office OLAF, said there’s more than enough proof that Greece and the bloc’s border patrol force Frontex have been pushing back refugees and migrants, despite denials.
Germany’s largest news site DER SPIEGEL said the Finnish former Member of the European Parliament – which earlier called for a probe of whether Frontex was taking part in pushbacks – said, “We have a lot of evidence.”
That was said to include 20 witnesses testifying that the pushbacks happened although Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose New Democracy government has been trying to keep them out, denied it happened.
OLAF investigators look into cases of possible fraud or misappropriation involving EU funds or wrongdoing and have spent more than a year looking into Frontex and its chief, Fabrice Leggeri and his aides, the report said.
The agency’s closing report is more than 200 pages long and strictly confidential. European parliamentarians, who oversee Frontex, got an oral summary and the report said “it was a bombshell.”
Several sources not named said the briefing accused three members of Frontex leadership of having violated EU regulations and recommended disciplinary measures against them.
They wanted to question Leggeri but the report said he refused because he hadn’t read the findings and the names of others allegedly involved haven’t been released so far, although he’s said to be the main target.
Since March 2020 – the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Greek Coast Guard has been intercepting boats in the area full of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, including many Syrians.
The news site claimed – as have human rights groups, activists and other major media sites – that border guards apparently destroyed the vessels’ motors, pulled the people back toward the Turkish coast and then abandoned them at sea – either in inflatable life rafts or in rubber dinghies.
Sometimes, the border guards have even forced back asylum-seekers after they had already reached the Greek islands, the report said, all those allegations denied by Greece, whose National Transparency Agency said there’s no proof.
In cooperation with Lighthouse Reports and other partner media outlets, DER SPIEGEL said it collected evidence of the systematic use of pushbacks on the EU’s external border.
The reporting said that included Frontex border guards handing over refugee boats to the Greek officials who were said to have pushed them back into Turkish waters, watched by Frontex planes overhead.
Testifying before the EU Parliament, Leggeri said he knows nothing about any such operations and backed Mitsotakis’ government to the hilt in long defensive spiels, but his job is now said to be at risk, according to the report.
OLAF investigators are apparently in possession of detailed evidence that Frontex management actively covered up the pushbacks to help Greece, against the protests of some officials there, the site claimed.
“Internal photographs which have never been shown before and which have been leaked to DER SPIEGEL and Lighthouse Reports, support these findings. They show that Leggeri was in possession of clear evidence for illegal pushbacks early on,” the report also said.
Itälä was said to have told EU lawmakers that some Frontex staff members are convinced there were pushbacks that were covered up for political reasons but the border patrol didn’t comment.