EU pays for surveillance in Gulf of Tunis

A new monitoring system for Tunisian coasts should counter irregular migration across the Mediterranean. The German Ministry of the Interior is also active in the country. A similar project in Libya has now been completed. Human rights organisations see it as an aid to „pull backs“ contrary to international law.

In order to control and prevent migration, the European Union is supporting North African states in border surveillance. The central Mediterranean Sea off Malta and Italy, through which asylum seekers from Libya and Tunisia want to reach Europe, plays a special role. The EU conducts various operations in and off these countries, including the military mission „Irini“ and the Frontex mission „Themis“. It is becoming increasingly rare for shipwrecked refugees to be rescued by EU Member States. Instead, they assist the coast guards in Libya and Tunisia to bring the people back. Human rights groups, rescue organisations and lawyers consider this assistance for „pull backs“ to be in violation of international law.

With several measures, the EU and its member states want to improve the surveillance off North Africa. Together with Switzerland, the EU Commission has financed a two-part „Integrated Border Management Project“ in Tunisia. It is part of the reform of the security sector which was begun a few years after the fall of former head of state Ben Ali in 2011. With one pillar of this this programme, the EU wants to „prevent criminal networks from operating“ and enable the authorities in the Gulf of Tunis to „save lives at sea“.

System for military and border police

The new installation is entitled „Integrated System for Maritime Surveillance“ (ISMariS) and, according to the Commission, is intended to bring together as much information as possible from all authorities involved in maritime and coastal security tasks. These include the Ministry of Defence with the Navy, the Coast Guard under the Ministry of the Interior, the National Guard, and IT management and telecommunications authorities. The money comes from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which was established at the Valletta Migration Summit in 2015. „ISMariS“ is implemented by the Italian Ministry of the Interior and follows on from an earlier Italian initiative. The EU is financing similar projects with „EU4BorderSecurity“ not only in Tunisia but also for other Mediterranean countries.

An institute based in Vienna is responsible for border control projects in Tunisia. Although this International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) was founded in 1993 by Austria and Switzerland, it is not a governmental organisation. The German Foreign Office has also supported projects in Tunisia within the framework of the ICMPD, including the establishment of border stations and the training of border guards. Last month German finally joined the Institute itself. For an annual contribution of 210,000 euro, the Ministry of the Interior not only obtains decision-making privileges for organizing ICMPD projects, but also gives German police authorities the right to evaluate any of the Institute’s analyses for their own purposes.

It is possible that in the future bilateral German projects for monitoring Tunisian maritime borders will also be carried out via the ICMPD. Last year, the German government supplied the local coast guard with equipment for a boat workshop. In the fourth quarter of 2019 alone, the Federal Police carried out 14 trainings for the national guard, border police and coast guard, including instruction in operating „control boats“. Tunisia previously received patrol boats from Italy and the USA.

Vessel tracking and coastal surveillance

It is unclear which company produced and installed the „ISMariS“ surveillance system for Tunisia on behalf of the ICPMD. Similar facilities for tracking and displaying ship movements (Vessel Tracking System) are marketed by all major European defence companies, including Airbus, Leonardo in Italy, Thales in France and Indra in Spain. However, Italian project management will probably prefer local companies such as Leonardo. The company and its spin-off e-GEOS have a broad portfolio of maritime surveillance systems.

It is also possible to integrate satellite reconnaissance, but for this the governments must conclude further contracts with the companies. However, „ISMariS“ will not only be installed as a Vessel Tracking System, it should also enable monitoring of the entire coast. Manufacturers promote such Coastal Surveillance Systems as a technology against irregular migration, piracy, terrorism and smuggling. The government in Tunisia has defined „priority coastal areas“ for this purpose, which will be integrated into the maritime surveillance framework.

Maritime „Big Data“

„ISMariS“ is intended to be compatible with the components already in place at the Tunisian authorities, including coastguard command and control systems, radar, position transponders and receivers, night vision equipment and thermal and optical sensors. Part of the project is a three-year maintenance contract with the company installing the „ISMariS“.

Perhaps the most important component of „ISMariS“ for the EU is a communication system, which is also included. It is designed to improve „operational cooperation“ between the Tunisian Coast Guard and Navy with Italy and other EU Member States. The project description mentions Frontex and EUROSUR, the pan-European surveillance system of the EU Border Agency, as possible participants. Frontex already monitors the coastal regions off Libya and Tunisia using satellites and an aerial service.

EUROSUR is now also being upgraded, Frontex is spending 2.6 million Euro on a new application based on artificial intelligence. It is to process so-called „Big Data“, including not only ship movements but also data from ship and port registers, information on ship owners and shipping companies, a multi-year record of previous routes of large ships and other maritime information from public sources on the Internet. The contract is initially concluded for one year and can be extended up to three times.

Cooperation with Libya

To connect North African coastguards to EU systems, the EU Commission had started the „Seahorse Mediterranean“ project two years after the fall of North African despots. To combat irregular migration, from 2013 onwards Spain, Italy and Malta have trained a total of 141 members of the Libyan coast guard for sea rescue. In this way, „Seahorse Mediterranean“ has complemented similar training measures that Frontex is conducting for the Coastal Police within the framework of the EU mission EUBAM Libya and the military mission EUNAVFOR MED for the Coast Guard of the Tripolis government.

The budget for „Seahorse Mediterranean“ is indicated by the Commission as 5.5 million Euro, the project was completed in January 2019. According to the German Foreign Office, Libya has signed a partnership declaration for participation in a future common communication platform for surveillance of the Mediterranean. Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt are also to be persuaded to participate. So far, however, the governments have preferred unilateral EU support for equipping and training their coastguards and navies, without having to make commitments in projects like „Seahorse“, such as stopping migration and smuggling on the high seas.

Image: EUROSUR maritime surveillance off Tunisia (Copernicus).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.

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