The European Union's watchdog on Wednesday launched an investigation into the role Frontex played in one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in recent history.
Among the documents EU Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly has demanded access to is the formal report by the Union's external border agency about how events unfolded when the Adriana boat sank on 14 June off the coast of Greece.
Up to 750 people were on board the fishing vessel. Only 104 survived while 82 bodies were recovered.
The tragedy reignited sharp criticism of the Greek coastguard as well as Frontex who are accused of not taking the necessary actions that could have prevented the shipwreck.
Frontex has said it offered assistance to the Greek authorities after the overcrowded boat was spotted but that both calls went unanswered. Greek authorities have meanwhile defended its operation — a single ship was sent but offered no assistance after the captain of the trawler reportedly refused help in order to continue sailing towards Italy.
An investigation has been launched at the national level but O'Reilly said in a statement that "Frontex’s role in search and rescue operation also needs to be clarified."
'I have to make what is invisible visible'
"I decided to see what we could do in relation to filling the gaps in the story and primarily by looking at the role of the EU's border agency, Frontex, to see what it knows about it, its involvement in it, its responsibilities, its legal obligations and other obligations in relation to it," she told Euronews in an interview.
Search and rescue is a competence of national governments, O'Reilly said, with multiple conventions related to maritime laws and refugees also adding to the legal framework surrounding such operations.
Yet, she said, "I don't think it's down to the narrow legal basis as between the competence of a member state and the competence of Frontex in relation to what happened when hundreds of people are in imminent danger of dying — and in fact, hundreds of people ultimately did die."
"So it's sort of untangling all of those relationships and responsibilities. And, of course, as you know, there's politics in all of this as well.
"I think I have to make what is invisible visible. And after that, political decisions, choices can be made in relation to it. But the important thing, the important work that I will do and the Greek Ombudsman will do is that we will lay independently the facts out there. And that in itself, I think should prompt, hopefully, will prompt change in relation to this," the Ombudsman added.
Frontex 'helped rescue 28,000 people this year'
As part of the own-initiative inquiry, O'Reilly is also asking for details about how national authorities and Frontex communicate over search and rescue operations and about the rules for the use of cameras mounted on boats during joint operations. She is also demanding clarification over whether Frontex reports on fundamental rights violations with regard to the interactions of national authorities with NGO vessels that rescue people at sea.
Both the Greek coastguards and Frontex have been accused of violating fundamental human rights in recent years by either carrying out of turning a blind eye to migrant pushbacks at sea.
A report by OLAF, the EU's anti-fraud agency, that was leaked late last year documented multiple such pushbacks in the Aegean Sea between 2020 and 2021 that were covered up by Frontex.
The scandal led to the resignation of Fabrice Leggeri as Frontex chief with his successor, Hans Leijtens vowing to end the practice when he came into office.
Frontex said in a statement to Euronews that they "look forward to fully cooperating with the Ombudsman to explain the role Frontex plays in search and rescue operations."
"It is important to note that Frontex does not coordinate search and rescue operations. This is the responsibility of the national rescue coordination centres. Nevertheless, Frontex sees the rescue of lives at sea as one of its essential roles and provides all the necessary support to national authorities when needed.
"This means that Frontex vessels conduct search and rescue operations when called upon. In addition, both Frontex vessels and aircraft provide rescue centres and rescuers with information vital to saving lives.
"Just this year, Frontex helped to rescue nearly 28,000 people", a spokesperson added.
'We need to trust national judicial systems'
The Ombudsman office also announced on Wednesday that it will launch a second investigation later this year into the role of EU institutions in upholding fundamental rights in border management activities.
The European Commission has always maintained that border management is a competence of member states and that any possible violation of international and humanitarian law must be carried out by national authorities.
It reiterated this in a statement on Wednesday in which home spokesperson Anitta Hipper said the Commission "takes note of the own-initiative inquiry launched by the European Ombudsman today".
"The investigations by the Greek authorities are ongoing. The investigation is the responsibility of the member state – Greece in this case - under the control of independent courts", she added.
Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said earlier this month, during a grilling by the European Parliament’s Justice Committee, that "there is an urgent need for a thorough, transparent and effective investigation, and I agree that this is important for many reasons, not least for the Greek reputation."
Greek investigations over the last few years into allegations of human rights violations in their handling of migrants have always cleared their agencies of any wrongdoing.
This article has been updated to include quotes from an interview with Emily O'Reilly as well as the Commission's statement.