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European Ombusdman Calls for Independent Inquiry Into Large Number of Mediterranean Deaths

1st March 2024
European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly
European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly Credit: Wikimedia

A European Ombudsman inquiry into Frontex’s role in search and rescue operations says that the current rules leave the EU’s border and coast guard agency unable fully to fulfil its fundamental rights obligations.

The inquiry says Frontex has no internal guidelines on issuing emergency signals, such as Mayday calls, and it is too reliant on member states to act when boats carrying migrants are in distress.

The inquiry was initiated by Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly following the Adriana tragedy in June 2023, which resulted in over 600 people drowning off the coast of Greece.

The vessel is estimated to have been carrying up to 750 migrants, mostly from Pakistan, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, and some from Afghanistan, when it sank in international waters in the Mediterranean on June 14th, 2023.

O’Reilly has called on the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, and the Commission to establish an independent commission of inquiry to assess the reasons for the large numbers of deaths in the Mediterranean and to learn from the Adriana shipwreck.

Documents inspected during the inquiry show that Frontex made four separate offers to assist the Greek authorities by providing aerial surveillance of the Adriana but received no response, the European Ombudsman’s office says.

“The current rules mean that Frontex was not permitted to go to the Adriana’s location at critical periods without the Greek authorities’ permission,” it says.

“Consequently, Frontex was at the scene of the Adriana only twice — once briefly by plane two hours after the Italian authorities first made the alert about the Adriana, and then 18 hours later with a drone after the boat had already sunk,”it says.

The inquiry also showed that Frontex has no internal guidelines on issuing emergency signals (e.g. Mayday calls), and that there is a failure to ensure Frontex’s fundamental rights monitors are sufficiently involved in decision making on maritime emergencies.

“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.

“Why did reports of overcrowding, an apparent lack of life vests, children on board, and possible fatalities fail to trigger timely rescue efforts that could have saved hundreds of lives?”she has asked.

“Frontex includes ‘coast guard’ in its name but its current mandate and mission clearly fall short of that. 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,”she says.

“There is obvious tension between Frontex’s fundamental rights obligations and its duty to support member states in border management control,” she notes.

“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,”she says.

The report also highlights broader systemic issues. The inquiry found that while the Greek Ombudsman is investigating the actions of the Greek coastguard, there is no single accountability mechanism at EU level that could independently investigate the role of the Greek authorities, the role of Frontex, and the role of the European Commission.

The Commission is responsible for ensuring compliance with fundamental rights provisions under the EU treaties.

“Nearly eight months after the Adriana incident, no changes have been made to prevent such an incident from recurring,” O’Reilly has said.

Published in Rescue
Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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