The first European casualty of push-backs at the Aegean: How Fabrice Leggeri had to walk the plank

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Fabrice Leggeri’s resignation as head of Frontex – the Warsaw-based border agency of the EU – so as to avoid formal disciplinary procedures that would be initiated against him following the release of initial findings from a probe into misconduct at Frontex made of the 54-year old French-origin official the first European casualty of the disturbing state of things prevailing at the sea-borders of the EU. Leggeri quit complaining that Frontex risked to be changed in an NGO, if it followed the demands to show more respect to the human rights of those pushed back at sea.

The EU’s own anti-fraud watchdog, OLAF (not exactly a NGO) had Leggeri under investigation for the better part of one year. European media, ranging all the way from the Guardian and Le Monde to ARD or the Swiss television, had corralled data about pushbacks by the Greek Coastguard, with Frontex either in close watch or even in active participation. This situation had caused apprehension at EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson level, plus unrest at the European Parliament (both not NGOs).

The investigation over Frontex practices – not limited at Fabrice Leggeri level, although his feisty defense of his service’s behavior made him a willing target of NGOs tracking the infamous push-backs at sea in the Aegean – was kept carefully under wraps for quite a long time. The representatives of Greece, Hungary and Poland on the Frontex board offered sympathy and political cover to Leggeri – but when Germany and even Leggeri’s own France joined Sweden in questioning the wisdom of keeping him on board, he was made – as an MEP quipped – “to walk the plank, all alone”. The official Frontex announcement of its Board accepting the Leggeri resignation added that this made “any further inquiries” unnecessary.

As a parting shot, Leggeri’s own defense said that he hadn’t realized that the mission of Frontex (and thus his own job description) had been “silently” altered. In this vein he indicated that he did not consider guaranteeing the human rights of migrants at sea and/or the protection of asylum-seekers to fall under the remit of Frontex. (“He never saw human rights protection as an important part of the [Frontex] mandate”).

Two months ago, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (the UN is not a NGO, either…) expressed alarm at “recurrent and consistent reports” over cases of the Greek Coastguard failing to assist refugees at sea. In a strongly-worded tweet, Filippo Grandi, as UNHCR, said “What is happening at European borders is legally and morally unacceptable and must stop. Protecting human life, human rights and dignity must remain our shared priority”. The fact that the UNHCR had recorded 540 incidents of informal “returns” by Greece since the start of 2020, made Grandi get on record saying that such “deplorable” acts were becoming “normalized”. Leggeri’s own position that “human rights were not an important part of the Frontex mandate” paint the EU in disturbing colours in the eyes of the international community.

Some months earlier – on October 2020 – lFrank Schwabe as human rights spokesman for Germany’s SPD (the lead partner in Germany’s present Coalition Government – not a NGO, either) called for Germany federal police officers assigned to Frontex patrol to be withdrawn if implicated in pushbacks: “Germans must in no account be involved in pushbacks, not even indirectly” is the full quote. German MEP Birgit Sippel, who followed closely the European Parliament’s inquiry into Frontex, said to the Guardian: “It seems that the behavior of people working in Frontex was unacceptable”. The management of Frontex funds and personnel under Leggeri was also cause for concern on part of OLAF.

The twists and turns of history so dictated, that the Leggeri unhappy ending of Frontex management of refugees’ and asylum-seekers’ human rights co-incided with a whole new era of Europe’s position towards refugees – facing the human wave from Ukraine. Are issues of race, colour and religion to be reworked in Frontex mandate? If for no other reason, at least for the sake of honesty…