BRUSSELS — The head of the European Union’s border agency has offered to resign following allegations that the agency was involved in illegal pushbacks of migrants, European Union and German officials said Friday.
The board of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex, is considering whether to accept the offer from Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri, a German Interior Ministry spokesperson said.
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.
Leggeri has been under mounting pressure to resign for several months. Last year, the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, OLAF, opened an investigation into Frontex, over allegations of harassment, misconduct and migrant pushbacks. The director submitted his offer to resign a day after a media investigation suggested that Frontex’s database recorded illegal pushbacks in the Aegean Sea as “prevention of departure” incidents.
Leggeri has previously denied wrongdoing.
“I can confirm that he has offered the board of Frontex his resignation,” ministry spokesperson Maximilian Kall told reporters in Berlin. Kall said replacing Leggeri would offer an opportunity for a “fresh start” at Frontex.
“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.
Frontex supervises the enforcement of the EU’s external borders and those of countries that participate in Europe’s visa-free Schengen area. A spokesperson for the EU’s executive commission, Eric Mamer, said it was up to the agency’s board “to assess the situation.”
Leggeri has led Frontex since January 2015, running the agency during the 2015 European migrant crisis, when well over 1 million people, many of them refugees fleeing war in Syria, began entering the bloc.
According to a joint investigation this week by Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, SRF Rundschau, Republik and Le Monde, the EU’s border agency has been involved in the pushbacks of at least 957 asylum-seekers in the Aegean Sea between March 2020 and September 2021.
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 grouping of the European Parliament, said Leggeri’s departure would be “a long overdue development, after years of constant allegations of pushbacks and violations of human rights.”
A German non-governmental organization, Pro Asyl, welcomed Leggeri’s offer to step down. Pro Asyl helps migrants seeking protection in Germany from war and persecution.
“It’s scandalous that the director of an EU agency hid human rights abuses for years, manipulated evidence and lied to Parliament,” the head of the group’s Europe department, Karl Kopp, said in a statement.
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 “massively cut.”