May 24. 2024. 6:35

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Frontex co-wrote interception report with Italy before shipwreck

The EU border agency Frontex has confirmed that it analysed in real time the intercepted data from the migrant boat that eventually sank in late February together with two official Italian representatives at the Frontex headquarters in Warsaw.

The confirmation threw in doubt Italy’s stance that they were not properly alerted on the night of 25 February, a few hours before the shipwreck of the southern Italian coast of Calabria, killing 70 people.

At the time of interception, the live streaming of sensors was shared live both with Italian authorities and the Frontex headquarters in Warsaw, reinforced by two Italian experts, in the analysis of different data and recognition signs, an official source from Frontex told EURACTIV.

“We have a law enforcement expert [from Guardia di Finanza] and a SAR (search and rescue) expert from Guardia Costiera. They are there to advise in their areas of expertise, suggest where to monitor and provide the team leader from Frontex with additional information if needed,” the Frontex source explained.

Elements of interception

At the time of the interception, some information indicated the possibility that the boat “might be carrying a large number of people”, according to thermal signs analysed by a Frontex expert.

Frontex warned Italy of possible ‘large number of people’ before shipwreck

The Italian authorities disregarded warnings from the EU border and coast agency Frontex, based on reconnaissance signals, that a ship which eventually sank off its coast might be carrying a large number of people, a source from Frontex told EURACTIV.

In addition, the sea state was 4 out of 7, which means waves of up to 2.50 metres, and the weather conditions were worsening.

Despite the boat “sailing normally” as confirmed both by Frontex and the Italian Coast Guard, the information shared with Italy at the time of interception indicated potential distress at sea and therefore, a need for a SAR operation.

Frontex cannot officially say whether a situation at sea calls for a search and rescue operation or a law enforcement one, according to international law.

However, the EU agency provides analysis of data and information by its experts for each specific competence – supported by Italian authorities in its headquarters – in a report. Based on that, the member state – in this case Italy – must decide how to react.

After the interception, “the Frontex aircraft sent the alert to the national law enforcement contact point, informing, among others, the Rome Coast Guard Operations Centre for information”, the Italian Coast Guard stated in a press release on 28 February.

Italy decided then to start a law enforcement operation sending two patrol boats of Italian financial guards (Guardia di Finanza, GDF) that, however, had to return to their ports because of the worsening sea and weather conditions, a press release by GDF on 27 February said.

The GDF does not have the equipment or mandate to perform any SAR operations, which the Italian Coast Guard is entitled to do.

A few hours later the interception, in the early morning of 26 February, the boat sank.

No emergency communication narrative

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi have affirmed that “no emergency communication arrived from Frontex” at the time of interception, since there were “no distress signs”.

Italy did not classify Frontex’s communication as ‘emergency’ before shipwreck

Italy did not assess as an “emergency” Frontex’s communication about a boat which later sank, killing more than 60 people, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni told the press on Saturday (4 March).

However, the report did not arrive only from Frontex, but from both the EU agency and Italian authorities in Warsaw, which operate under the command of the Interior Ministry, according to the Themis operation.

Themis operation with a ‘police’ focus

Frontex’s work is included in the framework of the Themis operation, a joint Frontex-Italy operation of police and search and rescue operations.

Since 2018, Frontex provides, “under the command of the Italian Ministry of Interior”, support with border control, surveillance and search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean.

Replacing the Triton operation, Themis has “an enhanced law enforcement focus while continuing to include search and rescue as a crucial component”.

The silence of Italian authorities

EURACTIV asked both the Italian Coast Guard and the Interior Ministry to confirm Frontex’s version of facts at the time of interception but no answer was received by the time of publication.

The Italian Coast Guard were also asked by EURACTIV to confirm the presence of one of its representatives.

“The Corps, at this stage, does not make any statements regarding the events that occurred in Crotone” the Italian financial guard told EURACTIV, when asked about Frontex’s communication.