The head of the EU’s border force is under growing pressure to stand down after being accused by the European commission of acting unlawfully and giving misleading evidence to MEPs.
The allegations against Fabrice Leggeri, the executive director of Frontex, relate to the agency’s failure to recruit any of the 40 officers it is obliged to employ to protect the rights of people crossing into Europe.
The former French civil servant is accused of presenting his explanation for the lack of recruitment of “fundamental rights officers” in a “misleading manner” when giving evidence to the European parliament last month, according to a letter from the commission’s director-general for migration and home affairs, Monique Pariat.
In her letter to Leggeri dated 18 December, Pariat further claimed that the head of the border agency had acted “unlawfully” in 2019 by publishing two vacancy notices for positions in Frontex without the approval of its management board.
The development will pile pressure on Leggeri, whose agency is already under investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, Olaf, over a range of claims including allegations that its guards had been involved in forcing refugees and migrants out of EU waters at a Greek-Turkish maritime border.
The most incendiary claims about the involvement of Frontex border guards in “pushbacks” – denied by the agency – are also the subject of an internal investigation. A first draft of an internal report on the issue is due to be presented to the management board on Wednesday.
Frontex has previously stated it is fully cooperating with Olaf and its investigations “do not necessarily imply any malpractice”.
Asked whether Leggeri should consider his position, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, told the Guardian: “I have no comment on that. Now that we have processes going on and they have not been finalised and I think they should be finalised.”
However, the former Swedish minister added that it was clear that “some of the things being said by the executive director in parliament [are] not true”.
Johansson said she had been “very upset” by claims first made in October over Frontex’s alleged complicity in illegal and often dangerous pushbacks aimed at preventing asylum seekers crossing the Aegean Sea, adding that systems for reporting abuse needed to be in place.
Evidence against Frontex includes testimonies and video footage showing one of the agency’s vessels manoeuvring dangerously near a crowded dinghy full of people and creating waves that drove them back.
A joint investigation from Lighthouse Reports, Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, ARD and TV Asahi documented six instances where the agency was either directly involved in a pushback or in close proximity to one.
In a statement in October, Frontex restated its commitment to preventing refoulement, or illegal pushbacks, of people seeking international protection.
Johansson said: “The first time I’ve heard that, I called immediately the executive director. I was very upset and he has to clarify what’s actually going on.
“I was not really satisfied with the explanation. So that’s why I called for an extraordinary meeting of the management board, and there have been several extraordinary meetings and also ordinary meetings of the management board, and they are taking their responsibility to find out what has been going on.
“But also what kind of proper routines that should be in place in Frontex. We know that by the regulation they should have 40 fundamental rights monitors in place by 5 December – they have none. So this is also part of things that need to be clarified and need to be set up in a in a proper way,” she said.
“It’s for me, 100%, clear that our own agency has to be fully complying to EU [law] and fundamental rights.
“They also have to be able to prove that in an efficient way and to have proper routines for reporting in place to make sure that if officers on Frontex missions have seen or been aware of illegal things going on there have to be proper systems to report that.”
Last year Frontex, which has a €5.6bn (£4.7bn) budget for the next seven years, was given a mandate to create a 10,000-strong armed force to be deployed at the EU’s external borders as a response to the migration crisis. In recent days, the agency unveiled a new uniform for its guards.
Frontex’s executive director has strongly rejected allegations about the agency’s operational conduct during repeated EU parliamentary scrutiny hearings.
Leggeri has blamed delays in establishing a robust internal monitoring mechanism, including the recruitment of 40 rights experts, on ineffective bureaucracy from within the commission itself.
In Pariat’s letter, which has been shared with the parliament’s committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs, she said there had been sufficient time and resources available to Leggeri to fulfil his obligations. “The commission has consistently and swiftly provided all necessary guidance in order to allow the agency to reach that objective,” she wrote.
Sophie in’t Veld, an MEP from the liberal Renew Europe group, said there were clear flaws in the agency’s structure. “The system is a mess, you can’t handle a body like this when you have 10,000 armed people at your disposal,” she said.
Veld told the Guardian that “answers are expected” and if they are not provided then, “inevitably, the discussion will have to be about the director’s position itself”.
A Frontex spokesperson said: “Unfortunately, some misunderstandings in such demanding times and online discussions are unavoidable. We regret any that might have occurred and look forward to continued collaboration to together keep our borders safe with the essential participation of the standing corps, fully respecting fundamental rights.
“EU commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas and commissioner Ylva Johansson have expressed confidence in Mr Leggeri at many occasions in recent months. The Frontex Management Board, which represents the border authorities of member states, has not raised any objections to his leadership. Mr Leggeri has no plans to resign and remains determined to lead the agency is these challenging times.”