Mediterranean Sea: Frontex claims to have detected 13,000 refugees with drones

After in Malta, the EU border agency is now stationing a long-range drone on Crete. There is contradictory information on the surveillance technology on board.

According to its own figures, Frontex has detected at least 13,000 refugees in 300 cases with the help of long-range drones and reported them to the responsible coast guards. Since May last year, the EU border agency has stationed a Heron 1 from the Israeli arms company IAI in Malta for such missions. The drone is officially registered to the Maltese Air Force.

The contract for Frontex drones was awarded to the German branch of the Airbus Group in Bremen, which also flies four Heron 1s for the German armed forces in Mali. They are controlled from a mobile facility located at the international airport near the Maltese capital Valletta. Other Airbus technicians are responsible for maintenance and repairs there.

Expensive Frontex aerial service

The deployment of a Heron 1 in Greece will follow in the coming weeks, Frontex announced in a recent presentation to European coastguards. This will complement the border agency’s manned aerial service of leased charter aircraft, which at more than €150 million accounts for a significant part of its operations budget.

Frontex drone missions in past, presence, future (Frontex).

The decision to procure drones was taken by the agency shortly after the so-called „migration crisis“ of 2015 and an amendment to the Frontex Regulation. A first call for tenders initially came to nothing, so test flights with a Heron 1 and an AR5 from the Portuguese company Tekever did not begin until 2018. A year later, Frontex commissioned the Italian arms company Leonardo with trials of its Falco drone. In 2019, Frontex used an Israeli Hermes 900 for several months, but the huge drone crashed during take-off and suffered total damage.

It was not until the Airbus contract that Frontex adopted drones for everyday use. Initially, 1,200 flight hours were required, and in the event that the conditions were not met, Elbit was to step in with a Hermes 900. Frontex, however, is satisfied with Airbus, so the contract was increased by a further 1,870 flight hours.

Streaming to headquarters

In addition to piloting the Heron 1, Airbus is also responsible for the payload. For aerial surveillance, the drones are equipped with electro-optical cameras, infrared sensors, a laser rangefinder and maritime radar. Like the drone itself, the technology comes from IAI and its subsidiary ELTA.

Workflow of Heron 1 in Airbus missions (Airbus).

Also on board is a so-called emergency beacon for position determination. For this purpose, the sensor operators can point a laser pointer at a distress beacon to guide ships to it.

The recorded sensor data is streamed by Airbus via an encrypted data link directly to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw. A specially set up Frontex unit evaluates the data and decides on follow-up measures in the event of a sighting of refugee boats.

Capturing phone calls within range

Allegedly, the Heron 1 does not carry equipment for tracking mobile and satellite phones, Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri recently confirmed in an answer to a parliamentary question.

Airbus, however, explicitly praises such technology in a presentation. According to this, „COMINT sensors“ are also used in the Frontex mission. The military abbreviation stands for „Communication Intelligence“ and refers to the recording and analysis of telephone connections for reconnaissance.

COMINT technology on board (Airbus).

The company could thus detect mobile phones within range of the drone. If there are no other ships or oil platforms in the area, this might indicate the presence of a refugee boat. Airbus can use the technology also to locate refugees in bad weather or at night.

EMSA drones for member states

The EU Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) is also now using drones on a larger scale. Unlike Frontex, the services are made available to the coastguards of the member states for several months. There, in addition to general maritime surveillance, they are also used to observe environmental pollution.

These flights will also be expanded this year. In addition to Cyprus and the Netherlands, the coast guards in Italy and France have ordered joint drone services from EMSA for the first time.

The two countries plan to cooperate on law enforcement in their border region in the Mediterranean. After four months, the mission is to be transformed into a „permanent regional operation“.

Unmanned flying hours for €350 million

It is completely unclear what the added value of the sprawling drone flights is compared to manned reconnaissance with chartered aircraft. One advantage is likely to be the range. The Heron 1, for example, stays in the air for up to 20 hours and exceeds the endurance of the small aircraft in the Frontex mission by double or even triple.

For this, the EU agencies pay a high price. In total, EMSA’s individual contracts from the last few years alone add up to almost €300 million. Frontex had budgeted its drone flights from Malta at €50 million, according to the tender at the time. For each of the approximately 3,000 flight hours, Airbus would thus receive a five-figure sum.

In this way, Frontex de facto takes over aerial reconnaissance for Libya, which has no aircraft or drones of its own. Around two thirds of the refugee boats sighted in the central Mediterranean are reported to the Libyan coast guard so that it can retrieve the occupants. Human rights organisations criticise this practice because refugees in Libya are threatened with torture and ill-treatment.

Image: First tests of an AR5 for Frontex and EMSA (Frontex).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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