Frontex gives up rescuing people in the Mediterranean Sea


A couple years ago EU sea patrols were rescuing people, who were on their way to Europe, from drowning boats. But now the EU has found a very effective way not to do it. And, at the same time, to block access to European borders. The solutions are, among others, Israeli drones. And what Europe has achieved is: sealed borders, smiles on the faces of some European politicians and two thousand casualties among migrants affected by the so-called ,,pushbacks”- pushing migrants back from the European borders. 
The EU reacts in the Mediterranean Sea

In response to the migrant crisis and the resulting catastrophic situation in the Mediterranean Sea, the European Union decided in March 2015 to launch a military sea operation Sophia. It aimed at reducing the number of drowning boats with migrants trying to get to Europe. The operation targeted people involved in human trafficking and smugglers. Nevertheless, the ships sent by the EU to the Mediterranean Sea were also rescuing people from the often drowning boats. 

Such actions were imposed by the admiralty law, which absolutely orders the crews of any ship nearby to help evacuate the vessels in danger. It turned out to be quite problematic for the EU, because people on board of these rescued boats had to be taken care of; they could not have simply been sent back to Libya, which is only theoretically a country. 

Drones responsible for the ,,unpleasant duty” of rescuing people

The answer to this problem emerged in Israel. This country has tested drones during attacks on the Gaza Strip, inhabited by Palestinians numerous times. Europe liked the idea so much that it decided to sign a delivery contract with its producer, Elbit Systems. 

Why drones? They are not water vessels, so they are not obliged to help drowning boats- they can not even do this. Thanks to that, Frontex can watch drowning people from the sky and justify the lack of reaction by the fact that there is no rescue boat nearby. But the main task of the drones is not merely to passively observe. They are supposed to transmit information about the vessels sailing out to the formation called the Libyan Coast Guard. The Guard then takes over the vessels and returns them back to Libya. But it is worth remembering that Libya is a fallen country. None of the Libyan governments (neither the one in Tobruk, nor the one in Tripoli) have full control over armed groups operating on the Libyan territory. Like any other Libyan formation, the coast guard’s members are fighters loyal to some local bosses. Unfortunatelly, they are often connected to the human trafficking business. 

Read more aboute EU buying drones to patrol borders on >>

So the people returned by the coast guard go back to facilities often resembling concentration camps. There they are daily subjected to diseases, hunger, rape, robbery or murder. This tragic situation is strengthened by the fact that the Libyan security forces at site do not fulfill their role. In fact, they are actively contributing to the inhumane treatment of the migrants. People disappearing in the camps governed by Libya, the so-called ,,forced disappearances”, are part of the reality there. Migrant groups are separated and taken into different facilities. 

Families are also separated. Mary, one of the people personally affected by this procedure, reports: ,,When the coast guard brought us to Tripoli, they separated men and women. They never told us where they were taking the men. About seven women, who had husbands or fiancés, were separated. We told them, but they wouldn’t listen”. Mary was pregnant, which did not stop the Libyans from separating her from her child’s father.  

The Libyan Coast Guard, local fighters with the European money

The actions of the coast guard against people trying to get to Europe are not only marked with violence. There is also disregard for the mortal danger which the migrants face. This is how one of the witnesses describes one of the boat’s ,,interception”: ,,They caught four more boats before they took us to Tripoli. It was very crowded, they put us all together, but still they wanted to catch more people. The last boat rolled over. We watched them from our boat, but the coast guard, instead of rescuing them, recorded videos with their phones. The people from that boat told me five died there”.

Libyan fighters shooting to the migrants’ boats are also of daily occurrences. One of the witnesses reports: ,,The coast guard wanted to punish us. They surrounded us and when they approached to take six more people, they just left them in the water and they swam back to Libya. One of the guards with a gun said that next time they would leave us all”.

Learn the story of three boys who lost their freedom for trying to save a group of refugees >>

The fighters responsible for these events, called the Libyan Coast Guard, are financed and trained by the European Union. It’s a part of the cooperation programs with Libya. Italians are in the lead in this cooperation; last year they boasted about delivering to Libya their military vehicles. This so-called cooperation program is worth almost 60 million euros. 

The EU gives up the rescue missions

Observation from the sky could be a good addition to the sea operation Search and Rescue (SAR). The problem is, though, that the EU SAR operation in the Mediterranean Sea is practically nonexistent now. A substitute, the sea military operation Sophia, aimed at human traffickers and smugglers, ended in March last year. It was replaced by an operation aimed at only executing the arms embargo imposed on Libya.

Leaving the migrants at the mercy of the sea and the Libyan fighters has brought some measurable benefits. Not necessarily the benefits that the EU was counting on. The UN estimated that the number of deaths at sea in the first six months of 2021 increased by more than half in comparison to the same period of 2020. 

Frontex criticized for the actions on the borders

Frontex and the EU itself have again come under criticism. Last year, the agency was accused of illegal aggressive push backs and of turning back the migrant boats at the Aegean Sea. Now there are additional accusations. Of militarizing European borders and of cooperating with the Libyan Coast Guard. Libyan Coast Guard is associated with local military organizations and human traffickers.

Non-governmental organizations and some members of the European Parliament are trying to call Frontex to account for their actions. It is difficult, however, due to the lack of external control mechanisms. An internal audit has been announced, though. There has so far also been no effect of many pleas about stopping the cooperation with Libyan fighters.

New technologies recently bought by Frontex are used not only in the Mediterranean Sea. Afghan migrants trying to cross the Serbian-Hungarian border were also reporting about the newest drones, thermovision and laser vibrometers detecting pulse. Interestingly, Frontex’s budget has almost quadrupled since 2015’s build peace together!

An analysis conduce by the Guardian showed that push backs against migrants on the EU borders, both on land and in the sea, have cost more than 2 000 lives (out of 40 000 people pushed back from the European fortress). 


[1] Guardian, EU accused of abandoning migrants to the sea with shift to drone surveillance

[2] Guardian, Once migrants on Mediterranean were saved by naval patrols. Now they have to watch as drones fly over

[3] Guardian, Revealed: 2,000 refugee deaths linked to illegal EU pushbacks

[4] Amnesty International, ‘No one will look for you’. Forcibly returned from sea to abusive detention in Libya.

[5] Międzynarodowa Organizacja ds. Migracji, Deaths on Maritime Migration Routes to Europe Soar in First Half of 2021: IOM Brief

[6] Parlament Europejski, Stop cooperation with and funding to the Libyan coastguard, MEPs ask

[7] Komisja Europejska, EU delivers support to border management in Libya

[8] Politico, Operation Sophia to be closed down and replaced

[9] Euractiv, EU signs €100m drone contract with Airbus and Israeli arms firms

Photo: Gerd Altmann /Pixabay 

Najnowsze publikacje