EU risks becoming 'complicit' in migrant deaths, watchdog warns

FEB 28, 2024 LISTEN

The European Union may be complicit in migrant deaths unless the border agency Frontex withdraws from countries that fail to rescue migrants at sea or violate their fundamental right, a report on Wednesday warned.

The Ombudsman's investigation comes after more than 600 people died in June 2023 when an overcrowded vessel, the Adriana, sank off the coast of Greece while traveling from Libya to Italy.

While it does not accuse Frontex of breaching rules, the report highlights Frontex's dependence on national authorities for consent – limiting its ability to act independently, even in life-threatening situations.

EU Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly called for a change to Europe's search and rescue rules.

Frontex should pull out of countries that fail to rescue migrants at sea or violate fundamental rights. Otherwise, the EU risks becoming "complicit" in the deaths, the European Ombudsman has warned in the new report.

No May Day call

Human rights groups accused Greek authorities of failing to properly investigate the Adriana disaster. Italian authorities were also involved in the incident.

Just 104 people were rescued – mostly migrants from Syria, Pakistan and Egypt.

“We must ask ourselves why a boat so obviously in need of help never received that help despite an EU agency, two member states' authorities, civil society, and private ships knowing of its existence," O'Reilly said.

The report emphasised the tension between Frontex's fundamental rights obligations and its duty to support member states in border management control.

It criticised Frontex's lack of internal guidelines for issuing Mayday calls. Despite the agency's detection of the Adriana through air surveillance, no Mayday relay was issued.

The blame was not entirely placed on the agency: Greek authorities reportedly did not respond to Frontex's messages on "four separate occasions" during the tragedy.

They also refused the agency's offer to send an additional aircraft to the area.

'Changes needed'

The report warned that if Frontex continued working with frontline countries without undergoing "significant changes", the EU's commitment to protecting human lives will be put into question.

It urged the bloc to amend the agency's legal mandate and to ensure a higher degree of independence.

"Frontex includes 'coast guard' in its name but its current mandate and mission clearly fall short of that," O'Reilly said.

"If Frontex has a duty to help save lives at sea, but the tools for it are lacking, then this is clearly a matter for EU legislators."