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Why did Frontex help an NGO ship rescue refugees in the Mediterranean?

Though the European border agency tells The Civil Fleet it is NOT its policy to ignore charity ships, MSF humanitarian affairs adviser Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui finds a number of contradictions to this claim

THE Osprey 3, a reconnaissance plane chartered by Frontex, the European Border and Coastguard Agency alerted an NGO refugee rescue ship to a rubber boat in distress carrying 118 people in international waters off the coast of Libya on November 11.

Almost all of the activists involved in the NGO refugee rescue missions that I have spoken to this year and last have told me that Frontex’s planes do not alert them to refugee distress cases in the central Mediterranean.

The planes only appear to communicate with the Libyan Coastguards who — trained and supported by the European Union despite the bloc’s concerns that the Libyan government may be involved in the human rights abuses happening inside the country’s migrant detention centres — only return refugees back to the war-torn country.

The Osprey 3’s interaction with the Open Arms rescue ship was the first time that any EU agency has helped an NGO ship locate refugees in the central Mediterranean since at least March — when the Italian and Maltese governments announced that their ports were closed to refugees at the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in their countries.

“Normally we don’t have any contact with them,” the Open Arms’ search-and-rescue (SAR) coordinatior David Llado tells me a few days after the ship had placed 259 rescued refugees in Italy’s care.

Frontex, Italy and Malta’s maritime rescue coordination centres (MRCCs), Europe’s coastguards and port authorities, want to keep the NGOs in “a blind spot,” Llado says.
“They want us to witness as little as possible. That’s why there’s no communication.

“This is only the feeling I have for the things I’ve lived through these last years at sea, but the only thing I can assume is that the Osprey 3 knew the Libyan Coastguard was not in the area, that they couldn’t arrive on time and since we were very close to the area, Frontex decided to speak with us.”

Frontex posted about its cooperation with NGO rescuers on its official Twitter account on November 11, which it hasn’t done since March if ever at all.

“Yesterday, [a] Frontex plane spotted a rubber boat in distress with more than 100 people on in the [central Mediterranean],” its tweet reads.

“They were later rescued by Open Arms. Unfortunately, five bodies were recovered after the overcrowded boat collapsed onto itself during the rescue.”

Frontex’s PR team even took the time to get a quote from (or at least attribute one to) their boss and add that underneath the original post.

It reads: “Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri: ‘My thanks to Frontex surveillance team for playing a key role in the rescue of 100 people. As the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, on duty 24/7, we are committed to saving lives at sea in close cooperation with all operational actors’.”

Perhaps the reason Frontex wanted to draw attention to this rare act of assisting an NGO was because of the allegations it was involved in the pushback of migrants and asylum seekers crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. An internal investigation into the alleged incidents has been ongoing since October.

A few days prior to my conversation with Llado, I’d gotten in touch with Frontex to ask why on this occasion did one of its pilots alert the Open Arms, and whether it is Frontex policy not to provide NGO vessels with information about migrant distress cases in the central Mediterranean.

“Overall, it is NOT Frontex policy not to alert NGO ships,” says agency spokesman Chris Borowski in answer to the above.

“Frontex policy, as required by international law, is to alert national rescue centres close to where it discovers a boat in distress. In the case you refer to, this means the MRCCs in Italy, Malta, Tunisia and Libya.

“In this particular case, we contacted Open Arms because the people on the boat were in imminent danger and there was not a minute to spare. This, unfortunately, proved correct when the rubber boat collapsed onto itself during the rescue.

“Take a look at the photo we posted. The smugglers made more than a hundred people crowd onto a rubber boat the size of two vans. These boats are already in terrible condition. No life vest in sight. People sitting at the edges because otherwise the whole thing would fold like an envelope.

“The more people, the more money for the criminals. All this because they expect that somebody will be close to Libyan waters to intercept the rubber boat before they run out of water (if they have any) and fuel.

“Let me add one additional note. Once we alert the MRCCs, one of them takes over the coordination of the search and rescue. It’s the MRCC that decides who to task with taking part. Frontex cannot and does not coordinate rescues.”

Doctors Without Borders’s (MSF) humanitarian affairs adviser Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui found Frontex’s response to my questions interesting.

“I thought that there were some contradictions,” she says.

“They did say that in that instance they felt the boat was in imminent risk and therefore they would have issued a mayday call, which informs everyone who is able to help.

“That shows that they do have the capacity to inform NGOs, or any vessel that is able to provide assistance to a boat in distress. But they don’t do it, and we know they don’t because we’ve been there.

“There were times when MSF would’ve been on one of the rescue vessels, either the Aquarius, later the Ocean Viking and now the Sea Watch 4, where we would see a circling Frontex plane on the radar.

“We would understand from that that they had identified a boat in distress, but not because they would issue a call for assistance.

“And sometimes the closest ship capable of providing assistance is an NGO ship, but they would not tell the NGO. Because this is not the game that is being played at sea.

“The game that is being played at sea is to ensure that people are intercepted and taken back to Libya.

“So when Frontex alerted the Open Arms, that was the exception rather than the rule.”

The second big question my exchange with Frontex raises for Hadj Sahraoui is the agency’s role in providing intelligence to the Libyan Coastguard.

Frontex might say it is only concerned with saving lives, she says, but they need to look at what happens to people if they are intercepted.

“They go back to detention centres.

“Frontex always says ‘look how ruthless the smugglers are’, but the thing is, we know that some of the people who are returned to Libya end up in the very hands that they were trying to flee. They end up back in the smugglers and traffickers’ networks.”

Frontex told me that it is their policy, as required by international law, to alert the nearest MRCCs when its planes discover a boat in distress and that the MRCC decides who will carry out the rescue.

This, Hadj Sahraoui says, is the agency trying to “exhonerate itself from having to inform other ships in the vicinity” — like the NGOs or any other vessel other than the Libyan Coastguard who might be able to help.

“They [Frontex] know that there is an issue here, that they’re sending back people to a place that the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR — the key agency when it comes to protection — is saying is not safe.

“They’re almost treating the physical rescue – the pulling people out of the water — from the disembarkation — the taking of people back to Libya — as if they’re two separate things.

“However, in international law a rescue requires a disembarkation in a safe place. So what the Libyan Coastguard does are not rescues because they’re not disembarking people in a safe place.”

On November 13, Frontex took to twitter to post about another incident in the Mediterranean.

“Ruthless people smugglers put dozens of people in danger today,” the Frontex post reads above a picture of people crammed into a deflating rubber boat.

“Thankfully a Frontex Plane saw the overcrowed boat near [the] Libyan coast and issued a mayday call. We also alerted all national rescue centres. 102 people were rescued by the Libyan Coastguard. Sadly, 2 bodies were recovered.”

Published by The Civil Fleet

A news blog and podcast focused on the activist-led refugee rescue and support missions across Fortress Europe

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