22nd Sep 2023

Over 4,000 Frontex documents published by German NGO

  • The files were uploaded and published by the German-based transparency group FragDenStaat (Photo: Frag Den Staat)
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Over 4,000 documents from the EU's border police agency Frontex, including freedom of information request responses, are now public.

The files were uploaded and published on Tuesday (13 December) by the German-based transparency group FragDenStaat.

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  • An example of Frontex redacting a previous freedom of information request from EUobserver on spending (Photo: Frontex)

EUobserver was given advanced access and had combed through the documents in an effort to better understand an EU agency accused of complicity in the violation of fundamental rights and as well as one often shrouded in secrecy.

The document-dump also comes at a time when the agency is expanding its power overseas, while its interim leadership under Aija Kalnaja has promised greater transparency.

"We need transparency. Also the agency needs transparency. Mismanagement within the agency simply cannot happen," she told MEPs in the civil liberties committee in May.

"I promised you full transparency and I will keep that promise," she repeated again in June.

And she made similar statements last month as part of her bid last month to take the five-year helm of the agency following the shock resignation of Fabrice Leggeri in April, after an Olaf anti-fraud investigation.

"You know simply stating we are transparent from the times when we weren't needs an internal change in the agency," she said, in November.

"There are things that we need to continue doing," she added.

Among them is how it handles freedom of information requests, or to use the technical term, Public Access to Documents (PAD)s.

Frontex has yet to make those public on its own website, although it says plans are underway to publish PAD requests as well as operational briefs sometime next year.

The agency has also in the past been faulted for how it handles such requests, including from ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, the EU's administrative watchdog.

Frontex obliges people to use an online access portal that is overly restrictive and unjustified, she said in June. The agency had set up the portal at the start of 2020, putting an end to email communication between the agency and the applicant.

The system also stymied the automatic publication of documents onto other public online transparency portals set up by European civil society organisations.

Frontex had also previously copyrighted the PADs, claiming applicants first needed their permission in order to share with others. And it blocks access to the account created for requests 15 days after it had sent its initial reply.

But aside from the broader issue of access to documents, their mass publication on Tuesday offers the possibility of greater scrutiny from the public at large.

Only earlier this week, Human Rights Watch along with digital investigators Border Forensics, issued a report on how Frontex aerial surveillance at sea enables abuse.

They found that out of more than 32,000 people intercepted and returned by the Libyan Coast Guard in 2021, almost a third were facilitated by intelligence gathered by Frontex aerial surveillance (FSA).

In a statement, they also faulted Frontex for a lack of transparency that makes it difficult to verify the facts and impedes accountability. "In processing 27 of 30 freedom of information requests submitted — the others are pending — Frontex identified thousands of relevant documents but released only 86 of them," they said.

Meanwhile, the use of FSA was also cited in the leaked Olaf report, citing allegations from November 2020 of the agency witnessing and then covering up illegal pushbacks.

"Olaf concluded, baed on the evidence collected during the investigation, that the allegations are proven," said the report.

Another FSA was also cited in the Olaf report, as well as in the documents released by FragenDenStaat.

Olaf report says Frontex had detected and recorded in April 2020 activities of the Hellenic Coast Guard towing a rubber boat of migrants back into the Turkish Territorial Waters, where it was then left adrift with no engine.

Frontex then attempted to downplay the incident in their own internal reporting procedures on rights violations.

Olaf cites another August 2020 incident, which is also listed in the documents published by FragDenStaat, whereby the Greek coast guard towed a migrant boat of some 30 people back into Turkish territorial waters.

Meanwhile, Leggeri was sending letters to MEPs, telling them that the agency was fully complying with, and ensuring, fundamental rights during its operations — published by FragDenStaat on Tuesday as well.

One such letter was sent in May of 2020 to the chair of the civil liberties committee, where Leggeri writes that fundamental rights are hard-wired into their operations.

Another letter cites Leggeri as saying that its presence on the border with Hungary and Serbia can "actively contribute to minimise any possible risk of a misuse of force."

That is an argument that has since been repeated by Kalnaja and the agency's own fundamental rights officer, Jonas Grimheden.

Best to keep Frontex in Greece, new rights officer suggests

Greece has drawn criticism and scrutiny for alleged widespread pushbacks of migrants in the Aegean Sea, along with the reported complicity of the EU's border agency Frontex. Critics say the agency should pull out of Greece.

Frontex leadership candidates grilled by MEPs

Terezija Gras from Croatia, Dutchman Hans Leijtens, and Frontex's current interim executive director Aija Kalnaja, are all competing for a job left vacant by the resignation of Fabrice Leggeri.

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