EU censures border agency after reports of human rights abuses in Greece

The European parliament has refused to sign off the EU border agency’s accounts, saying it had failed to investigate alleged human rights violations of asylum seekers in Greece.

The vote on the agency, Frontex, came after the resignation last week of its director, Fabrice Leggeri, who left after an investigation by Olaf, the EU’s anti-fraud body.

The parliament’s decision was based on a report drafted largely before Leggeri resigned, and reflected continuing concern that Frontex was failing to protect asylum seekers’ human rights and uphold EU law.

MEPs, meeting in Strasbourg, voted to postpone approving the Frontex accounts for 2020, during a session where they approved the budgets of dozens of other EU agencies that spend European taxpayers’ money.

The Belgian Green MEP Saskia Bricmont, who sits on the European parliament’s civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee, tweeted: “The resignation of [Frontex] director last week does not address structural problems, nor the agency’s contribution to the Fortress Europe policy.”

Frontex, the European border and coastguard agency, based in Warsaw, received a big increase in funds in response to the migration crisis of 2015-16, when 1.3 million people applied for asylum. Now one of the EU’s best-funded agencies, it had an annual budget of €364m (£307m) in 2020, up 10% on the previous year. There are plans to expand it further, to 10,000 border and coastguards by 2027.

The delay in approving its accounts has no financial consequences for the agency, but is a form of political censure that empowers MEPs to issue recommendations to its new director. The European parliament delayed approval of Frontex’s accounts in 2021 and rebuked the agency for failing to respond to its previous recommendations.

In a report giving the reasons for the latest delay, the European parliament’s budgetary control committee referred to problems in two EU member states. In Greece, Frontex “did not evaluate its activities”, despite official reports from national authorities, the Council of Europe and the UN that the agency was operating in areas where “fundamental rights violations” were taking place, it said.

Frontex was also criticised for not suspending its operations in Hungary, despite a 2020 ruling by the European court of justice that Budapest was failing to implement EU law to protect asylum seekers. After the court judgment, another committee of MEPs called on Frontex to withdraw from Hungary. However, the agency continued working with the Budapest government on a case-by-case basis, including helping to return people denied asylum to their country of origin.

MEPs also criticised the lopsided gender balance at Frontex, voicing “concern” that three-quarters of senior managers were men. It urged the agency to hold people accountable for 17 cases of harassment, although it did not provide details.

MEPs also implicitly rebuked EU authorities for not giving them access to the findings of the EU anti-fraud agency, which opened an investigation in 2019 into alleged harassment, misconduct and illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers by Frontex. The Guardian understands that Olaf recommended disciplinary action against Leggeri and two other staff members; Olaf has declined to comment.

Tomáš Zdechovský, a Czech centre-right MEP responsible for overseeing the Frontex accounts, said it was impossible to approve the accounts without knowing the results of the Olaf investigation. He was “looking forward to a more open dialogue” with the agency after Leggeri’s resignation, he said.

The resolution criticising Frontex passed with 492 votes, with the centre-right, centre-left, liberals, green and radical left groups agreeing. Opposing the report were 145 MEPs from conservative nationalist parties and the far right.

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