More than 4,000 documents from the EU border police agency Frontex, including responses to freedom of information requests, are now public.
EUobserver gained advanced access and combed through documents to better understand an EU agency accused of complicity in fundamental rights violations and often shrouded in secrecy.
The filing of documents also comes at a time when the agency is extending its power overseas, while its interim leadership under Aija Kalnaja has promised greater transparency.
“We need transparency. The agency also needs transparency. Mismanagement within the agency just can’t happen,” she told MPs on 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 lead the agency for five years following the shock resignation of Fabrice Leggeri in April, after an anti-fraud investigation by Olaf.
“You know, just saying we’ve been transparent since the days when we didn’t need an internal change in the agency,” she said in November.
“There are things we have to keep doing,” she added.
Among them is the way it handles access to information requests or, to use the technical term, public access to records (PAD).
Frontex has not yet made this information public on its own website, although it says plans are underway to publish PAD applications as well as operational notes sometime next year.
The agency has also faced criticism in the past for its handling of such requests, including from ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, the EU’s administrative watchdog.
Frontex is forcing people to use an overly restrictive and unwarranted online access portal, it said in June. The agency had set up the portal in early 2020, ending email communication between the agency and the candidate.
The system also hampered the automatic publication of documents on other online public transparency portals set up by European civil society organisations.
Frontex had also previously copyrighted the PADs, saying applicants first needed their permission to share them with others. And it blocks access to the created account for requests 15 days after sending its initial response.
But beyond the broader question of access to the documents, their massive release on Tuesday offers the possibility of closer scrutiny by the general public.
Earlier this week alone, Human Rights Watch and digital investigators Border Forensics published a report on how Frontex aerial surveillance at sea enables abuses.
They found that of more than 32,000 people intercepted and returned by the Libyan Coast Guard in 2021, almost a third were aided by intelligence gathered by Frontex Air Surveillance (FSA).
In a statement, they also blamed Frontex for a lack of transparency which makes fact-checking difficult and hinders accountability. “In processing 27 of the 30 access to information requests submitted – the rest are pending – Frontex has identified thousands of relevant documents but only released 86,” they said.
Meanwhile, the use of the FSA was also cited in the leaked Olaf report, citing November 2020 allegations that the agency witnessed and then covered up unlawful pushbacks.
“Olaf has concluded, based on the evidence gathered during the investigation, that the allegations are proven,” the report said.
Another FSA was also cited in the Olaf report, as well as in documents published by FragenDenStaat.
The Olaf report states that Frontex had detected and recorded in April 2020 the activities of the Hellenic Coastguard towing a dinghy of migrants in Turkish territorial waters, where it was then left adrift without engine.
Frontex then attempted to downplay the incident in its own internal procedures for reporting rights violations.
Olaf cites another incident from August 2020, which is also listed in documents published by FragDenStaat, in which the Greek Coast Guard towed a migrant boat of around 30 people into Turkish territorial waters.
Meanwhile, Leggeri was sending letters to MPs, telling them the agency fully respects and guarantees fundamental rights during its operations – also published by FragDenStaat on Tuesday.
One such letter was sent in May 2020 to the chairman of the Civil Liberties Committee, in which Leggeri writes that fundamental rights are embedded in their operations.
Another letter quotes Leggeri as saying his presence on the border with Hungary and Serbia can “contribute actively to minimizing any possible risk of abuse of force”.
It’s an argument that has since been repeated by Kalnaja and the agency’s own human rights officer, Jonas Grimheden.