Classified OLAF report alleges cover-ups, pushbacks of asylum seekers from Malta

A classified internal investigation of Frontex by the EU’s anti-fraud agency OLAF has claimed a cover-up of illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers from Malta’s search and rescue zone to Libya.

While allegations against Greece make up the lion’s share of an OLAF investigation into Frontex’s actions, it includes a report of serious incidents involving four migrant boats carrying around 250 passengers, which were sighted in Malta’s search and rescue zone between 10 and 12 April 2020 .

The incident came as Malta closed its ports to irregular migrants and as the Maltese government contracted private fishing vessels to bring migrants to Libya during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The more than 120-page report concludes that one boat was likely “towed” by the Maltese authorities to Italy, while another was pushed back to Libya by a Libyan-registered fishing vessel but based in Malta. When it arrived in Tripoli, it was carrying five dead irregular migrants.

According to Frontex’s OLAF investigation, “The Maltese authorities did not cooperate with Frontex in the search and rescue operations, nor did they provide Frontex with information on the exact locations of the boats after the discovery.”

A WhatsApp message from a then-Frontex employee whose name has been redacted is quoted in the report: “The boat that docked in Italy had new water bottles on board from Malta, so Malta probably towed the boat to Italy.

In particular, (name redacted) stressed the lack of cooperation from the Maltese authorities, who refused to provide Frontex with the coordinates of the migrants’ boats.

“I wonder at what political level the pressure was exerted in Malta because that is irresponsible behavior.”

The incriminating report noted that the incident had also been deliberately misclassified to avoid a full investigation into the alleged violation.

It also cites a redacted internal Frontex email requesting a serious incident report on the action, which was rejected by Frontex superiors: (name redacted) wrote an email to (name redacted) and to (name redacted), in which he stressed the need to launch a report on a serious incident and asked (name redacted) for guidance on categorization: “(…) in relation to the situation of migrant boats, which in the past few days were used by Frontex have been monitored and the previously reported issues in relation to Malta we believe the need for initiating an SIR.”

According to the report, Frontex officials allowed and later covered up an illegal pushback by the AFM that left 12 people dead.

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In that case, the Maltese authorities spotted four refugee boats en route from Libya, according to the report, made available through a recent freedom of information request. According to OLAF investigations, the boats were overcrowded with a total of around 250 irregular migrants and none were wearing life jackets.

But instead of rescuing the refugees, nothing happened for days under the observation of Frontex. Private fishing boats were then used by the Maltese government to herd the migrants back to Libya, where fugitives are routinely tortured in detention camps.

The boats arrived in Tripoli with five bodies on board, seven others had previously drowned. According to the report, Frontex officials wanted to report the illegal pushback, but their superiors refused.

Until last week, the secret document was only accessible to members of the European Parliament under strict conditions.

The German freedom of information specialists Frag Den Staat, Lighthouse Reports and Der Spiegel, to whom the report was leaked, have now published the document in full, citing reasons of public interest.

MPs refuse to approve Frontex budget 2020 over poison report

On Tuesday, MEPs refused to approve Frontex’s 2020 financial statements over allegations of serious misconduct, where they voted against granting discharge by a majority of 345 to 284.

They had already postponed the vote last May and instead demanded that the report be viewed in full. The report from the bloc’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, was finalized in February after a year-long investigation but had been kept confidential.

It was fully leaked last week but heavily edited. It detailed how Frontex managers committed “grave misconduct and other irregularities” by covering up pushbacks – the illegal practice of guiding migrants seeking EU shores back to their point of departure, in this case Libya force.

Members of the EP’s Budgetary Control Committee voted against the release of Frontex’s 2020 budget earlier this month, citing the “extent of serious misconduct committed” and possible structural problems under the agency’s former Executive Director.

Former Frontex boss Fabrice Leggeri resigned last April over the report.

The Greens/EFA group welcomed Tuesday’s vote, stressing that “Frontex is the most EU-funded agency” and in a petition accusing the European Commission of “turning a blind eye” to human rights abuses at the EU borders.

They cite Malta, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia and Spain as Member States where “threats, physical violence, assaults and ill-treatment during detention or transport” have been observed.

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“I welcome that the OLAF report is finally public, as it should have been from the start,” said Cornelia Ernst, MEP for the S&D group in the European Parliament.

“Once again, it proves in black and white what we have been saying for many years: Frontex is systematically involved in human rights violations and their cover-up at the EU’s external borders.”

Malta’s Covid pushbacks in April 2020

The Maltese aspect of the story began in April 2020 when the Maltese government used a private fishing trawler, Dar Al Salam 1, captained by Carmelo Grech, to intercept an overcrowded boat carrying irregular migrants in distress en route from Libya to Malta. It took in 51 migrants.

The dinghy was in international waters at the time but was also said to be within range of Maltese forces, who should have intervened. Instead, the trawler returned to Tripoli with the suspected asylum seekers, after which they were detained in Libyan detention centers.

The Dar Al Salam 1 was discreetly deployed by the Maltese authorities to intercept the irregular migrant boat.

According to an OLAF investigation, a Frontex reconnaissance plane spotted four overcrowded inflatable boats en route from Libya to Malta. According to the investigation, the Maltese authorities did not cooperate with Frontex in the rescue operations and did not even share the exact coordinates of the inflatable boats.

Two of these trawlers ended up docking in Sicily instead of Malta, while the third brought the irregular migrants back to Libya.

A WhatsApp message from a then-Frontex employee whose name has been redacted is quoted in the report: “The boat that docked in Italy had new water bottles on board from Malta, so Malta probably towed the boat to Italy.

“In particular, (name redacted) stressed the lack of cooperation from the Maltese authorities, who refused to provide FRONTEX with the coordinates of the migrants’ boats.

“I wonder at what political level the pressure was exerted in Malta because that is irresponsible behavior.”

It is also reported that 51 irregular migrants have been returned to Tripoli. According to Frontex, there were also five bodies on board, and seven others had previously drowned.

But not only have Frontex and the Maltese authorities been accused of inaction, there has also been a clear attempt at cover-up by the agency.

According to internal Frontex correspondence reported as part of the investigation, one employee emailed another asking how Frontex’s observations should be classified as a Category 2 incident of political or public interest, or a Category 4 incident involving relates to possible violations of basic human rights / international protection.

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The main consideration was that a category 4 would trigger an investigation into the incident by Frontex fundamental rights officers who would determine whether Frontex had respected the fundamental rights of the individuals concerned.

First, Frontex officers were ordered to classify the incident as category 2, which would have led to an investigation without a fundamental rights officer.

The Frontex Situation Center, which monitors and collects information on all such incidents, requested reclassification to a more serious Category 4 incident, but the request was repeatedly dismissed.

The boat was in distress in Libya’s SAR, not Malta, the government claimed

A statement by the Maltese government at the time defended their action or inaction: “The boat in question had already been in distress for a number of days while in the Libyan search and rescue area, not in the SAR of Malta. The European Union was aware of the boat because it was in Libya’s search and rescue area. The EU has flown its planes over the area but has not sent ships to collect the migrants,” the Information Ministry said in a statement at the time.

It added that once the boat was in Malta’s SAR/SRR, the Malta Rescue and Coordination Center immediately followed the established coordination procedures, the government insisted and transmitted the necessary information via the so-called NAVTEX.

“The Maltese Armed Forces also conducted a series of flights to establish the whereabouts of this boat as soon as it was reported to be in the SAR of Malta. During one of these flights, the exact location of the boat was determined and the AFM called nearby vessels for assistance.”

During that time, the government said, the Maltese armed forces also coordinated four other similar cases on their own.

The migrants who were brought back to Libya by the trawler, the government said, “were assisted by a merchant vessel that was sent to the boat’s location to render assistance. A Libyan fishing vessel later took the migrants on board” while the Maltese armed forces “themselves” coordinated four other similar cases.

However, in an April 2020 report on what happened on the high seas, Amnesty International found that some of the measures taken by the Maltese authorities may have included criminal acts resulting in preventable deaths, prolonged arbitrary detentions and illegal returns to war-torn Libya.

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