Aija Kalnaja, the interim head of the EU’s border guard agency Frontex is under investigation by the EU anti-corruption watchdog (OLAF), it was confirmed to EURACTIV on Friday (16 December).
The European Commission and member states were informed of the investigation on 23 November, while members of the European Parliament were not. Lighthouse Reports, Mediapart, and Der Spiegel made news of the investigation public on Friday, but the reason for the investigation remains unknown.
“I was notified by OLAF that I am a person of concern in one case, which consists of two separate events. I cooperate with OLAF fully, openly and unconditionally to clarify the facts,” Kalnaja told EURACTIV.
She also said that “due to confidentiality of the investigation”, it is not possible to provide details now.
“As soon as it would be legally possible, I am available to discuss the details”, she added.
An EU Commission official told EURACTIV that such a question has to be asked to OLAF which “are independent”.
OLAF confirmed EURACTIV that there is an “ongoing investigation concernin Frontex”, however, “as investigations are ongoing, OLAF cannot issue any further comments” to “protect confidentiality” of such an investigation.
Frontex was previously headed by Fabrice Leggeri, who resigned in April 2022 when the agency was investigated in an anti-fraud probe, again by OLAF, with Kalnaja replacing him ad interim.
The previous investigation, made public in mid-October of this year, revealed that the EU agency’s guards covered up the illegal pushbacks of migrants at the border on a massive scale in a violation of human rights between 2020 and 2021.
The OLAF review found that at least six pushbacks involved Greek coastguard ships that had been co-financed by Frontex.
In a press release in mid-October, the EU border guards agency responded that “these were practices of the past”.
“As a means of systematically addressing shortcomings, the agency and its management board have agreed to take a number of remedial measures”, Frontex stated.
The European Parliament hosted, on the 30 of November, a hearing with three Frontex director candidates for the next administration proposed by the EU Commission.
Kalnaja is among those candidates, together with Terezika Gras, the current state secretary at the Croatian Interior Ministry, and Hans Leijtens, a high-ranking military official from The Netherlands.
During the debate, the respect for human rights and transparency regarding the EU Parliament and the public were among EU lawmakers’ main concerns.
On 20 December, Frontex’s board will decide whether Kalnaja will be confirmed as a director or not. Meanwhile, the European Parliament civil liberties committee expressed its preference for the Dutch candidate, Leijtens.
According to Mediapart, and Der Spiegel, such an investigation will likely prevent the the confirmation of Kalnaja’s position.
In the meantime, the Council started negotiations in November to improve the presence and powers of Frontex also in third countries, such as those in the Western Balkans, allowing them to “exercise executive powers” such as border checks and registrations.
Frontex has already been spotted in Albanian airports over the last 12 months, and it has an existing agreement with the county, which was the first of its kind with a non-EU country.
Allegations of pushbacks involving Frontex guards have been reported in Albania, and the border between Greece and Turkey.
Earlier this week, EURACTIV covered a Human Rights Watch report that accused Frontex of involvement in the operation of drones and aircraft used to monitor migrants in the Mediterranean. The information was then used to push back migrants to Libya where they face violence and torture in detention camps.
The activity occurred in 2021, mainly from a ground-control station at Malta International Airport. Since that year, over 32,400 people have been captured by Libyan authorities at sea and forcibly returned to the country. HRW reported that a third of these interceptions were made following intelligence gathered by Frontex.
“The use by the EU’s border agency, Frontex, of aerial surveillance to enable the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept migrant boats, knowing that migrants and asylum seekers will face systematic and widespread abuse when forcibly returned to Libya, makes Frontex complicit in the abuse,” Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics said when publishing the research.
“As long as Frontex operations are designed to enable interceptions by Libyan forces, the border agency and the EU should be held accountable for their role in the abuses suffered by people returned to Libya,” they added.
The report concludes that Frontex’s approach is designed “not to rescue people in distress but to prevent them from reaching EU territory.”