April 18. 2024. 10:32

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EU Ombudsman slams Frontex’s dependence on EU countries for sea operations


The EU border agency Frontex is unable to “fulfill its fundamental rights obligation” due to its reliance on EU member states when a migrant boat is in distress, EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly highlighted in a report following an investigation into Frontex’s operations at sea.

O’Reilly’s report was published on Wednesday (28 February) and was based on the investigation that started last July, after a tragedy near the Greek coastal town of Pylos, where a boat with about 700 migrants sank and about 600 people drowned.

Greek authorities are investigating the matters, while civil society organisations and journalistic investigations have suggested that the Greek coast guard might have provoked the sinking. The coast guard denied any wrongdoing.

According to international law, any boat in distress at sea has to be assisted and rescued in the shortest time possible and survivors must be disembarked at the nearest place of safety.

Due to high political pressure around migration and operations at sea, EU countries have been increasingly reluctant to comply in search and rescue (SAR) operations in the Mediterranean in the last decade.

According to the Frontex incident report on the Pylos incident, published by Euractiv, Greek authorities failed to declare a SAR operation on time and deploy a sufficient number of assets to rescue people onboard the Adriana.

In general, O’Reilly denounced the lack of a proper system of investigation at the EU level that could independently verify if there is a lack of compliance with the international law when it comes to search and rescue (SAR) operations in international waters.

“While the Greek Ombudsman is investigating the actions of the Greek coastguard, there is no single accountability mechanism at EU level that could independently investigate the role of the Greek authorities, the role of Frontex, and the role of the European Commission, which is responsible for ensuring compliance with fundamental rights provisions under the EU treaties,” O’Reilly wrote.

Another major criticism was directed at Frontex for its lack of “internal guidlines on issuing emergency signals,” the EU Ombudsman said.

The Pylos incident report, as well as the report on another shipwreck near the Italian city of Cutro in February 2023, highlighted the need for a clear and standardised procedure for all kinds of interception and subsequent emergency signals.

“The inquiry also showed that Frontex has no internal guidelines on issuing emergency signals (Mayday calls), and that there is a failure to ensure that Frontex’s fundamental rights monitors are sufficiently involved in decision making on maritime emergencies,” O’Reilly said.

Frontex issues a Mayday when a boat is sinking. If a migrant boat is not on the brink of a shipwreck, Frontex only communicates the interception with all relevant information, as was the case of Cutro, which was initially classified by Italian authorities as ‘not a distress case’ due the boat’s regular speed.

However, the Frontex incident report published by Euractiv highlighted that these kind of cases can degenerate quickly, provoking multiple casualties, as happened with Cutro, where 94 people drowned.

According to international law, national authorities are the ones entitled to classify an operation as either search and rescue or something else, for instance, a police operation.

Reacting to O’Reilly’s report, a Frontex spokesperson told Euractiv that the agency “strictly adheres to its mandate, which does not include the coordination of rescue efforts — a responsibility that rests with national rescue coordination centres”.

“These centres possess comprehensive knowledge and oversight of rescue operations within their jurisdictions. In every instance where our assets detect potential distress situations, we promptly alert the relevant authorities.”

Cutro: Italian authorities deemed migrant boat ‘not of interest’ before shipwreck

Italian authorities in the Frontex monitoring room in Warsaw assessed as ‘not of particular interest’ the sighting of the migrant boat which sank near Cutro in southern Italy last February, the Frontex incident report, obtained by Euractiv, shows.

German socialist MEP Birgit Sippel, who was the Parliament’s rapporteur for a part of the EU’s migration pact, told Euractiv that the inquiry “confirms our long-standing concerns about structural and systemic problems in Frontex and in some respects it raises more questions than it answers”.

“We support the call for an independent commission of inquiry to give a clearer picture of the facts surrounding this tragedy,” she said.

The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest political group in the European Parliament, declined to comment on the matter at this stage.

Read more with Euractiv

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