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The Adriana carrying hundreds of people before it capsized and sank off the Greek coast in June Alamy Stock Photo
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EU at risk of becoming 'complicit' in migrant deaths due to Frontex shortcomings, watchdog warns

Hundreds of people died when the Adriana sank off the coast of Greece in June last year, prompting the EU inquiry.

THE EU RISKS becoming “complicit” in migrant deaths due to shortcomings in Frontex’s role in search and rescue operations, European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has said. 

The European Union watchdog – which looks into suspected cases of poor administration by EU bodies – launched an independent probe last July into the actions of Frontex, the bloc’s border agency, after hundreds of people died when the Adriana sank off the coast of Greece the previous month. 

The inquiry findings, published yesterday, outline that Frontex’s role in search and rescue operations has shown that the current rules leave the agency unable to fulfil its fundamental rights obligations and too reliant on Member States to act when boats carrying migrants are in distress. 

O’Reilly said there is “obvious tension between Frontex’s fundamental rights obligations and its duty to support Member States in border management control”. 

The sinking of the migrant boat made international headlines due to its sheer scale but the tragedy was not unique to the Mediterranean, which is the world’s deadliest migration route. 

The Adriana, an overcrowded fishing trawler, was carrying up to 750 people picked up in Libya who sought to cross the Mediterranean and enter Europe.

Around 100 of them were saved, but it is thought that some 600 drowned.

Following the sinking, The New York Times reported that the Greek coastguard had waited hours before responding to the boat in distress. 

EU investigation

Yesterday’s report outlined that according to documents inspected during the inquiry, Frontex made four separate offers to assist the Greek authorities by providing aerial surveillance of the Adriana but received no response.

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

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.

The inquiry also showed that Frontex has no internal guidelines on issuing emergency signals (eg. 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. 

She questioned why 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”.

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.”

O’Reilly added that there is “obvious tension between Frontex’s fundamental rights obligations and its duty to support Member States in border management control”.

“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.”

Independent Commission

Greece has separately launched two investigations into the incident. However, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued a joint report in December outlining that the investigations have made “little meaningful progress”. 

Going beyond the inquiry and the suggestions concerning Frontex, the Ombudsman also drew conclusions about broader systemic issues.

She noted 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.

She 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.

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

Includes reporting by David MacRedmond

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