Six hundred people drown but no call for help. Is this how Europe deters migrants? | Emily O’Reilly

WWhen 600 people die on a summer night in the Mediterranean, their journey is known or observed for many hours and at different times by an EU agency, maritime authorities of two EU countries, social activists civil and many private ships and boats. – a voyage and drowning effectively in plain sight – there is an obvious question: “How did this happen?”

My office has investigation the role of the European border and coast guard agency, Frontex, in the events surrounding the June 2023 capsize of the Adriana, an overcrowded fishing boat en route to Italy from Libya, with approximately 750 people on board. We explored how the most fundamental human right, the right to life, survives contact with those whose responsibility it is to manage our borders and save lives at sea.

The results reveal the chasm between rhetoric and reality.

In a speech in 2020, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “Saving lives at sea is not an option.” However, the political choices of the EU and Member States have made it difficult to realize this sentiment. Claims that the possibility of being rescued acts as a pull factor for migrants and those who exploit them – smugglers – have influenced these choices.

By the time the Adriana sank, proactive EU search and rescue operations no longer existed. A joint Italian-European rescue initiative, Mare Nostrum, has been halted. NGOs involved in search and rescue initiatives risk being prosecuted in several Member States.

Frontex, the EU’s largest and most well-resourced agency, is called a border guard and “coast guard” agency, but its mandate severely restricts its “search and rescue” role to research and monitoring. The power to act, to save lives in the specific context of a rescue at sea, lies primarily with EU Member States.

Fedi, 18, a Syrian survivor of the Adriana sinking, cries as he reunites with his brother Mohammad, in Kalamata, Greece, June 16, 2023. Photograph: Stelios Misinas/Reuters

Frontex does not act in ignorance of the past actions of some of these States. The agency has reportedly witnessed, or is aware of, human rights violations in the context of migrants’ attempts to reach Europe, but says it is limited in how it can factor this information into its operations.

Adriana’s tragedy came shortly after the former Frontex director resigned following an EU report revealing pushbacks of migrants by the Greek coast guard. Such pushbacks are illegal under European and international law. Less than a year earlier, the European Court of Human Rights had found against Greece in a case concerning another boat that sank with deaths and with some similarities to the tragedy of Adriana. Yet Frontex has so far chosen not to exercise its legal right to withdraw from Greece due to concerns about violations of fundamental rights. This is a matter that we have now asked him to consider and make these considerations public.

Our investigation revealed that for most of the period between the observation of the Adriana and its capsizing, Frontex had to stand by and do nothing, due to the lack of authorization from the Greek authorities to do more. The agency is legally required to follow the orders and directives of the national coordinating authority.

According to documents inspected by my office, repeated calls from the Warsaw-based agency to the Greek relief and coordination center went unanswered. A Frontex drone, proposed to assist the Adriana, was diverted by Greek authorities to another incident.

When Frontex was finally authorized to return to the Adriana site, the boat had capsized, already causing several hundred deaths.

Frontex had chosen not to exercise an autonomous power – that of issuing a Mayday relay – on the grounds that the Adriana was not in “immediate danger” when it was first sighted. The agency acted in accordance with legal rules and procedures, but a review of these rules shows that they cannot give full effect to the EU’s commitment to saving migrant lives, although the EU said repeatedly that saving lives was an EU priority.

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Legal changes at EU level would be necessary to allow Frontex to act on its own initiative in search and rescue situations and to rebalance the distribution of responsibilities between the EU and its member states.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the European Commission called for all the facts to be established, but there is no single accountability mechanism to do this. The Greek Ombudsman and the Greek Naval Court are separately investigating the coast guard’s actions, with the latter having refused to open an internal investigation.

Given the considerable number of deaths in the Mediterranean In recent years, I have called on the EU to launch a commission of inquiry into the factors that caused this humanitarian crisis.

According to the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said the European Parliament: “Above the Adriana, the waters are now silent, no tombstones, no markers, nothing to remember the names. Let our actions be our monument.

  • Emily O’Reilly is the European Ombudsman

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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