The European border agency observes boats with refugees from the air and lets them be brought back to North Africa. A new report by human rights organisations criticises this as “Airborne Complicity”.
The European Union has withdrawn ships from the central Mediterranean and is investing in aerial surveillance instead. Refugees who find themselves in distress at sea on their way to Europe are less and less likely to be brought to safe ports in Italy or Malta this way. In order not to be accused of this, Brussels lets Libyan actors do this “dirty work”.
This is the result of a new report published by Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics on Monday. These are human rights violations, Giovanna Reder of Border Forensics tells “nd”, calling Frontex air surveillance a “refoulment by proxy”.
For their data analysis, Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics evaluated the flight paths of Frontex air reconnaissance and compared them with other, freely accessible data. Further information came from the Sea-Watch association and the Alarm Phone, which forwards distress calls in the Mediterranean to the relevant authorities and documents their operations.
Frontex has limited the radius of action of its “Themis” mission from 70 to 24 nautical miles off the Italian coast. At the same time, the agency deployed six of its own aircraft last year alone. In the same year, the Libyan coast guard, which is part of the military, retrieved 32,400 people on the high seas – compared to 2020, this number has almost tripled. Frontex is said to have supported almost a third of these apprehensions with its aerial surveillance. By November 2022, more than 20,700 people had subsequently been returned to Libya.
The presence of border agency aircraft shows no significant impact on the death rate at sea, the report says. “So they are not making the sea safer,” says Giovanna Reder of Border Forensics. “But in contrast, there was a statistically significant correlation between Frontex flights and the number of pullbacks by the Libyan coastguard,” Reder says. On days when the planes fly more hours over their area of operation, the Libyan coast guard tends to intercept more boats, according to the study.
Frontex has also apparently deliberately avoided informing nearby ships about the maritime emergencies. The two organisations describe this as an overall strategy that violates international law. Refugees must not be brought to a state where persecution is imminent.
Brussels is well aware of the mistreatment of migrants in Libya and does not deny the evidence, write Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics. In July, the EU issued a statement at the United Nations calling the detention conditions in Libya “deeply alarming”. The acting Fundamental Rights Officer at Frontex also refers to abuses by the Libyan Coast Guard, according to a recent Freedom of Information Act request to the agency. The coast guards have even shot at boats carrying refugees at sea on several occasions.
Since last year, Frontex has also stationed a “Heron 1” drone at Malta International Airport. The framework contract worth €50 million was awarded to the German branch of Airbus in Bremen; the drone, once developed for the military, comes from an Israeli manufacturer. Airbus technicians are responsible for all flights, including take-offs and landings, and transmit the recorded data to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw.
For their report, Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics reconstructed events from 30 July 2021. On that day, the Libyan coast guard stopped several boats with possibly hundreds of refugees on the high seas. The drone is said to have played a key role in this, as indicated by conspicuous flight patterns.
None of the many other ships in the area were alerted by Frontex on the day in question to the discovered boats. In addition to numerous merchant and supply ships, three ships belonging to non-governmental organisations were also in the international waters off the Libyan coast: the “Sea-Watch 3” operated by the association of the same name, the “Ocean Viking” from the SOS Méditerranée network and the “Nadir” from RESQSHIP.
For several years, the EU has been investing in increased surveillance of the maritime borders in Libya. After the so-called “migration crisis” of 2015, Italy was tasked with installing a maritime coordination centre in the capital Tripoli and defining a sea rescue zone, for which Libya has since been solely responsible. The equipment for the surveillance and communication technology comes, among others, from the German company Rohde & Schwarz.
The EU Commission awarded funds amounting to €57 million for this purpose. However, the Italian Ministry of the Interior wants to keep concrete details, including the whereabouts of the funds, secret. The Italian journalist Sara Creta is therefore suing the government in Rome.
However, things are not going well from Brussels’ point of view either. In a document on the project, the EU Commission writes that the treatment of refugees during search and rescue operations in Libya needs to be improved, otherwise “the narrative and reputation of the EU” would be further “damaged”.
However, a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Tripoli allegedly financed by EU funds is “not operational” even after five years of EU support, the High Representative and Vice-President of the EU Commission Joseph Borrell recently admitted in response to a parliamentary question. Therefore, the EU is now allocating additional funds to house such a control centre in relocatable containers.
In addition to Frontex, the EU military mission “Irini” is also patrolling the Libyan coast to “combat human trafficking”. Two years ago, the Italian government at the time made it a condition for the new edition of the mission that the routes of boats carrying refugees be removed from the area of operations. Since then, Irini, like Frontex, has only been observing the area from the air.
A fortnight ago, the Berlin-based European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), together with the organisation Sea-Watch, therefore filed a complaint before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The court should examine the “individual criminal responsibility” of high-ranking decision-makers of EU member states and EU agencies.
Published in German in “nd”.
Image: A Frontex drone at the airport in Malta (Border Forensics).