EU risks becoming 'complicit' in migrant deaths due to Frontex shortcomings, watchdog warns

Frontex lacks independence to react to emergency situations in the Mediterranean, the Ombudsman warns in her new report.
Frontex lacks independence to react to emergency situations in the Mediterranean, the Ombudsman warns in her new report. Copyright Panagiotis Balaskas/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Panagiotis Balaskas/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Jorge Liboreiro
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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 a new report.

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The findings, released on Wednesday morning, offer a closer look at the often-fraught relation between the EU's border agency and the 27 member states.

The Ombudsman's inquiry was launched in response to the Adriana shipwreck in June 2023, when an overcrowded vessel sunk off the coast of Messenia, Greece, and left more than 600 people either confirmed or presumed dead.

The watchdog does not conclude that Frontex "breached any of the relevant rules and procedures" but notes its ability to operate at sea is severely impaired by its design, which makes the agency dependent on the consent and goodwill of national authorities. As a result, Frontex has limited scope to act independently, even in extreme cases where people's lives are in immediate danger.

"There is obvious tension between Frontex’s fundamental rights obligations and its duty to support Member States in border management control," Emily O'Reilly said.

"Cooperating with national authorities when there are concerns about them fulfilling their search and rescue obligations risks making the EU complicit in actions that violate fundamental rights and cost lives."

In reference to the Adriana shipwreck, the report says Frontex was "fully aware" of the concerns that have for years besieged the Greek authorities, including documented accusations of systematic pushbacks. And yet, despite this knowledge, the rules "prevented Frontex from taking a more active role in the Adriana incident."

The Ombudsman regrets the agency's lack of internal guidelines to issue Mayday calls, an international procedure to alert of life-threatening emergencies. Frontex did not issue a Mayday relay when it first detected the Adriana through air surveillance.

The blame, however, is not entirely placed on the agency: the Greek authorities did not reply to Frontex's message on "four separate occasions" during the tragedy and refused the agency's offer to send an additional aircraft to the area, the report says. (Athens has launched several inquiries to shed light on the circumstances.)

Building on this and similar episodes, the Ombudsman recommends that Frontex should "terminate, withdraw or suspend its activities" in member states that persistently disregard their search-and-rescue obligations or violate fundamental rights.

Frontex's cooperation with Greece, which involves about 500 standing corps offices and staff in the mainland and the Aegean islands, has been a hot topic of conversation since the Adriana shipwreck. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the agency's fundamental rights officer called for a suspension of activities but its executive director, Hans Leijtens, later toned down the suggestion, saying the decision needed to be "balanced."

In her report, Emily O'Reilly warns that if Frontex continues working with frontline countries without undergoing "significant changes," the EU's commitment to protecting human lives will be put into question. O'Reilly therefore urges the bloc to amend the agency's legal mandate and ensure a higher degree of independence.

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

Additionally, the Ombudsman calls for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry that can look into the large numbers of deaths in the Mediterranean and the responsibility borne by national authorities, Frontex and the EU institutions.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the number of migrant deaths and disappearances in the Mediterranean has grown steadily over the past years: 2,048 in 2021, 2,411 in 2022 and 3,041 by the end of 2023.

In reaction to the report, Frontex said it was "actively reviewing" the Ombudsman's suggestions and stressed its operations were "within the scope of applicable laws."

"Our agency strictly adheres to its mandate, which does not include the coordination of rescue efforts – a responsibility that rests with national rescue coordination centres," the agency said in a statement. "In every instance where our assets detect potential distress situations, we promptly alert the relevant authorities."

For its part, the European Commission, which is also named in the report, said it would respond to O'Reilly in due time but did not confirm whether it would support changes to the agency's mandate. A spokesperson called on member states to investigate migrant deaths in a "swift, independent and thorough" manner.

"We do not want such tragedies to happen," the spokesperson said.

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Frontex estimates that in 2023, the year that saw "the highest levels of irregular migration since 2016," it helped rescue 43,000 people at sea and return 39,000 migrants to their country of origin across 24 operations.

This piece has been updated with reactions to the report.

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