2023 Winner (joint)

Frontex Involved in Illegal Pushbacks of Hundreds of Refugees

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Germany

Publishing organisation: Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, SRF Rundschau, Republik, Le Monde

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-04-28

Language: German, English

Authors: Emmanuel Freudenthal, Bashar Deeb, Gabriele Gatti, Francesca Pierigh, Htet Aung, Eva Constantaras, Klaas van Dijken, Jack Sapoch, Giorgos Christides, Steffen Lüdke, Julia Pascual, Tomas Statius, Lukas Häuptli, Michael Zollinger, Carlos Hanimann, Keto Schumacher


Lighthouse Reports is a non-profit investigative outlet that works with traditional media organizations to investigate and uncover wrongdoing. Together with DER SPIEGEL and many other partners, they have investigated violence and human rights abuses at Europe’s borders since Short bios of all journalists involved can be found on the websites of their outlets.

Prize committee’s comments:

The Prize Committee jointly recognized two entries on the same topic, and with overlapping partners, for their groundbreaking investigation into the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and migrants attempting to enter Europe.

The teams comprised Lighthouse Reports and its partners, El País, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, SRF Rundschau, and Republik. 

In the first entry “Border Outrage: Uncovering the truth about deaths in Melilla“, the team used advanced visual investigation techniques to reveal the tragic events that led to the deaths of 23 people and the disappearance of 77 others at the border post in Melilla, Spain. The investigation’s impact was significant, resulting in extensive questioning of the interior minister in Parliament and follow-up reporting that confirmed the deaths on the Spanish side. This story sheds light on the challenges that asylum seekers and migrants face when seeking protection in Europe.

In the second entry “Frontex Involved in Illegal Pushbacks of Hundreds of Refugees“, the team obtained the internal Joint Operations Reporting Application (JORA) database via a Freedom of Information Request and conducted a data-driven investigation that confirmed Frontex’s involvement in 22 pushbacks concerning 957 people. This investigation was remarkable in its combination of data mining, cross-referencing, and visual evidence to expose the secret agency’s illegal activities. The investigation led to the resignation of Fabrice Leggeri, Executive Director of Frontex, the day after the publication, as the evidence presented was damning.

These projects are a testament to the importance of collaborative, data-driven investigative journalism in exposing abuses of power and holding those in authority accountable. The Lighthouse Reports and partners’ outstanding work showcases the potential for journalism to make a real difference in the world, even in the face of threats and challenges.

Project description:

A joint investigation of Frontex’s internal database by Der Spiegel, Lighthouse Reports, SRF Rundschau, Republik and Le Monde – shows that Frontex is implicated in illegal pushbacks of refugees in the Aegean Sea on a big scale.

Data recorded in its internal Joint Operations Reporting Application (JORA) database, when cross-referenced with other sources, indicates that Frontex was involved in at least 22 verifiable cases between March 2020 and September 2021. The real number is likely to be much higher. In the same time period, Frontex recorded its own role in 222 incidents involving 8,355 people.

Impact reached:

Across Europe, mainly in German, Switzerland and France, hundreds of thousands users read or watched the investigation. It directly lead to the resgination of Fabrice Leggeri, who was Executive Director of Frontex at the time. Leggeri was forced to step back by the Management Board of the agency the day after the publication since the investigation showed that Frontex’s involvement in illegal pushbacks was much bigger than previously proven. Leggeri had been under intense pressure due to other investigations by Lighthouse Reports, DER SPIEGEl and other partners.

The investigation and the downfall of Leggeri triggered headlines all over Europe. It put the Greek pushback campaign and the use of violence at EU borders into the spotlight. And it led to increased scrutiny by the European Parliament and Frontex having to proclaim a “fresh start” for the agency including a new leadership.

Techniques/technologies used:

The reporters obtained the JORA database via a Freedom of Information Request. Frontex sent a redacted version of the database and deleted all descriptions of incidents, but accidentally provided descriptions for 145 incidents which took place in the Aegean between April and August 2020.

The database, in use by Frontex since 2011, includes more than one million lines and 137 columns. The reporters analysed the information contained and were able to identify reporting patterns which point to cases of pushbacks.

The incidents have an almost identical description: a Frontex asset (plane, helicopter, vessel or drone) detects a migrant boat crossing from Turkey and warns the Greek Coast Guard. The Coast Guard informs the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Greece and Turkey, after which the Turkish Coast Guard returns the boat to Turkey. The incidents are registered in JORA as “prevention of departure”, and include the estimated number of people stopped from entering the EU, and a tick-box to signal Frontex involvement.

Cross-referencing incidents in JORA with those recorded in other databases, such as the Turkish Coast Guard’s or NGO reports, plus gathering additional visual evidence, we confirmed Frontex was involved in 22 pushbacks concerning 957 people. They were put in life-threatening situations on the open sea, left adrift on inflatable vessels without engines until the Turkish Coast Guard picked them up.

But between March 2020 and September 2021, Frontex was involved in a total of 222 incidents which it recorded as “prevention of departure”, amounting to 8,355 people. Sources within Frontex, the Greek Coast Guard and the police all confirmed that the term “prevention of departure” is used to indicate pushbacks.

Context about the project:

Work on border violence and illegal pushbacks has become increasingly difficult in many states in the EU, especially in Greece. Reporters operate under the shadow of possible legal threats, law suits and public defamation campaigns. Frontex, on the other hand, is a notoriusly secret agency who is trying to limit its answers to FOIA requests to the bare minimum.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

The investigation was built on top of several investigative cross-border projects that proved Frontex’s involvement in illegal pushbacks. The investigative work started in spring 2020 and led to us having a superior understanding of how the pushbacks at sea work and what happened in specific incidents. The information gathered from the internal database was onl useful in combination with our knowledge and sources from past investigations.

Project links: