Eurosur: saving lives or reinforcing deadly borders? by Charles Heller and Chris Jones

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The European Commission claims Eurosur’s surveillance tools will help save lives at sea, but it is unclear whether the system can accurately detect the small boats migrants use and there is no mechanism to force Member States or Frontex to initiate search and rescue operations should a vessel in distress be located.

On 3 October 2013, a boat carrying more than 500 people, mostly from Somalia and Eritrea, sank less than 1 kilometre off the coast of Lampedusa near the “Conigli” beach, 4 kilometres from the island’s port. In the hours and days that followed, 155 people were rescued and 359 bodies were recovered, making this the most deadly known wreck of a migrants’ boat in recent years. The large number of deaths sparked public outrage and the Commission quickly presented Eurosur as a means of preventing future tragedies. In a statement following his visit to Lampedusa on 9 October, Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, said:

“We need also to strengthen our capacity for search and rescue, and our surveillance system to track boats, so that we can launch a rescue operation and bring people to safe grounds before they perish. I think the kind of tragedy we have witnessed here so close to the coast should never happen again. Our initiative ‘Eurosur’ is meant to do that.” [1]

Eurosur – the European Border Surveillance System – is an information collection and exchange system intended to provide precise “situational awareness” so that border guards can “detect, identify, track and intercept” irregular migrants. The system is intended to make it impossible for irregular migrants to enter EU territory undetected and, in theory, save their lives should they get in trouble whilst at sea. Proponents of Eurosur claim that while current surveillance technologies have difficulty detecting small boats used by migrants, Eurosur will be able to do so by assembling data gathered through cutting-edge remote sensing technologies – such as drones, radars, and satellites – and combining the information generated by national authorities located on both sides of the Mediterranean.

The argument that more surveillance through Eurosur could have averted the 3 October tragedy is flawed for several reasons. First, it must be remembered that it is not through choice that people wishing to migrate to Europe embark on unseaworthy vessels (amongst other precarious means) and resort to using criminal networks. They do so because no legal avenues for migration are offered to them. Faced with the surveillance and militarisation of the maritime space that has been built up over the last 20 years to police the borders of the EU, illegalised migrants are in turn forced to take ever longer and more dangerous routes to avoid being detected. [2] Surveillance is thus a key component of the conditions that have led to over 14,000 documented deaths at the EU’s maritime borders over the last 20 years. [3]

Second, Eurosur was already in partial operation, and had been for almost two years, when the 3 October tragedy occurred. In its 2012 report, Frontex, the EU border agency that acts as the main coordinator of Eurosur, explained that:

“The Eurosur Network has been in use since December 2011. Since March 2012, the Network has been used to exchange operational information. During 2012, the Network was expanded from the original six countries (Spain, France, Italy, Slovakia, Poland and Finland) to 18 (Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Norway).” [4]

While countries of departure, such as Libya, may not yet be formally integrated into this network, Eurosur was up and running at the time of the Lampedusa tragedy. [5]

Third, even when Eurosur is fully operational, the level of surveillance deployed on the island of Lampedusa will remain far greater than that proposed for the Mediterranean space. Lampedusa has several coastal radars, between 10 and 20 Coast Guard and Customs Police patrol boats, and a number of maritime surveillance aircraft deployed on and around the island. These surveillance tools are partly financed and coordinated by Frontex, but they were not sufficient to avert the tragedy.

The emergence of Eurosur

Formally launched in February 2008 by the EU Commission, the Eurosur initiative has a complex genealogy. One of its possible origins can be found in 2003, in the Feasibility study on the control of the European Union’s maritime borders submitted to the EU Commission by CIVIPOL, a semi-public consulting company to the French Ministry of the Interior. The report argued that:

“There is a growing need for surveillance of all kinds of vessels in European coastal waters […] It would now be technically feasible to combine all the available data (all types of information picked up by every kind of fixed and mobile sensor) in a given area, in order to establish a centralised overview of the area.”

It was proposed that such an assemblage be operated by linking up data provided by national centres in a “European Intelligence Centre.” The ensuing maritime picture would make it possible to carry out “classic tracking and interception operations” – no mention of “rescue” is present. [6]

This initial idea of linking up sensors and national centres to produce an overall maritime picture was further developed and consolidated after 2005, following the creation of Frontex. In 2006, the agency led the BORTEC feasibility study to establish a “surveillance system covering the whole southern maritime border of the EU.” From report to feasibility study, from proposal to Regulation, the Eurosur initiative progressively took shape. The Eurosur Regulation was adopted on 22 October 2013 and
operations formally began on 2 December 2013.

Operating Eurosur

Eurosur links the national surveillance systems of EU Member States and neighbouring countries and provides additional high-tech sensors in order to increase the “situational awareness and improve the reaction capability of national authorities controlling the external borders of the EU Member States.” The stated aim is to prevent cross-border crime, reduce the number of irregular migrants entering the Schengen area undetected and reduce the deaths of migrants at sea. [7] To this effect, Member States are obliged to designate a National Coordination Centre – there will be 24 in total – which will compile information on their external borders and transmit regular situational reports, known as “National Situational Pictures,” to other Member States and to Frontex. Frontex will then use this information to construct a “European Situational Picture” and a “Common Pre-Frontier Intelligence Picture.” “Pre-Frontier” designates an area that begins at the external borders of the EU but which has no external limits.

Border surveillance capacities in third countries will be reinforced in order to help provide this picture. Additional surveillance means will be deployed such as drones and satellites, with imagery and analysis provided by other EU agencies including the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Union Satellite Centre (EUSC) and the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). [8]

To achieve these ambitious goals, Eurosur has been awarded significant financial and technical support. [9] The Commission’s estimated costs for implementing and operating Eurosur between 2011 and 2020 amount to €340 million. An alternative estimate produced for a critical report, Borderline, in June 2012, suggests a cost over the same time period of €837.7 million. [10] With this massive financial investment and increases to both information sharing and sensing capacity, one might assume that more small boats will be detected and more lives will be saved. In reality, this outcome is far from certain.

Detecting small boats?

The argument that more surveillance – in particular through drones and satellites – will improve detection of migrants’ small boats is contradicted by several studies, including one led by Frontex itself. Zodiac style rubber boats and small wooden fishing boats, which are both used in many crossings, are notoriously difficult to detect, which is precisely why they are chosen not only for clandestine border crossings but in military operations. In 2009, Frontex led a pilot study with the EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) to evaluate the extent to which these boats could be detected using synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery - essentially a satellite image produced by beaming a radar signal from space. While SAR images could detect boats placed in a known location for the experiment, the report published in 2011 underlined the difficulties related to the “conflict between resolution and image swath.” Essentially, small boats can only be captured by high-resolution images which cover a small area, while the maritime area to be monitored - the Mediterranean - is huge. As such, the report concludes that “maritime surveillance with high resolution images would require a large number of images to cover wide maritime areas, which is very expensive and for the time being technically not feasible.” [11]

There is no indication that any of the experiments undertaken since the pilot study have resolved this fundamental dilemma which applies to all remote sensing technologies. Despite often being presented as a panacea, remote sensing technologies will thus be limited in their capacity to detect the small boats migrants use, although Frontex’s 2013 work programme indicates that the agency has been further investigating the possibilities of super high resolution imagery. [12] In the meantime, the majority of rescue operations will continue to be initiated after distress calls are made by migrants themselves. [13]

Saving lives?

Even if the surveillance means and information exchange deployed by Eurosur will consistently enable the detection of migrants’ small boats in the open sea, who is to guarantee that they will be saved? It should be noted that while “saving lives” is now publicly displayed as Eurosur’s main objective, this role was reluctantly inserted into the legislation at a late stage. The vast majority of provisions that relate to saving lives were added by the European Parliament during negotiations with the Council, against the wishes of many Member States. [14] The Commission’s initial legislative proposal, published in February 2012, made just one mention of Eurosur’s contribution to “protecting and saving lives of migrants at the external borders of the Member States of the Union,” and this only in the preamble. This indicates that saving lives is not a political priority and it remains to be seen whether the insertion of new clauses into the legislation will prove to be any more than a semantic victory.

To date, there is no obligation under the Eurosur legislation to ensure that Member States or Frontex initiate search and rescue operations should their plethora of surveillance tools locate a vessel in distress. Nor does the legislation contain provisions that address the right to claim asylum. As a justification of this absence, Oliver Seiffarth, of the Unit on Border management and Schengen governance at the Commission’s Directorate-General for Home Affairs, recently said at a Frontex conference that, “international frameworks for search and rescue already exist and it is important not to set up a ‘competing system’”. [15] However, the current framework has been repeatedly instrumentalised by states to evade their responsibility to launch rescue missions, with tragic consequences.

Dying after pre-frontier detection

Several cases demonstrate that detection, or any other form of knowledge of distress at sea, is no guarantee that migrants will be saved. In 2011, journalists, NGOs, an MEP, and the Watch the Med project documented what is now referred to as the “left-to-die boat case”. [16] A boat carrying 72 people left the Libyan coast in the early hours of 27 March 2001, sailing through waters that at the time were being monitored by over 40 naval assets charged with enforcing the arms embargo imposed during the international military intervention in Libya. In the early afternoon of the same day, the boat was identified by a French aircraft, which informed the Italian authorities. A few hours later, the passengers sent out a distress call to the Italian rescue agency, which, because the boat was still located in the Libyan Search and Rescue (SAR) zone, simply passed on the information to Malta and NATO command. The boat was flown over twice by a military helicopter of unknown nationality which assisted only by providing biscuits and water, probably hoping that the boat would be able to continue far enough to enter the Maltese and Italian SAR zone. It never did. Soon after, the boat ran out of fuel and began a deadly drift that lasted 14 days, leaving only nine survivors. No actor provided them with assistance that could have averted their tragic fate.

As this case demonstrates, there is a general reluctance to intervene on the part of all actors at sea. EU coastal states are reluctant to rescue migrants because they would be responsible for disembarking them, processing their asylum claims and potentially deporting them. Whenever possible, they use overlapping and conflicting maritime jurisdictions as well as the margin of interpretation contained in international law to evade these responsibilities. Seafarers would often rather not take migrants on board for fear of losing precious time in standoffs over their disembarkation. If they do rescue migrants and allow them on board they can be accused of “aiding and abetting illegal migration”.

While the “left-to-die” case was widely publicised and led to criticism of several states for not assisting people in distress, a recent tragedy proves that no lessons have been learned. On 11 October 2013, a boat carrying over 400 people sank after it was shot by a Libyan vessel. A distress call was sent to the Italian rescue agency, but although close to Lampedusa the boat was in the Maltese SAR zone and responsibility for the operation was passed on to Malta. Several vessels - including those of the Italian navy and coast guard - were in the vicinity but were not deployed until the boat sank, over five hours after the initial distress call. 212 people were eventually saved, but more than 200 lives were lost because of this delay. [17]

An emerging practice by the Italian rescue agency consists of demanding that commercial vessels rescue migrants located in the (undeclared) Libyan SAR zone and return them to Libya, a country which is not a signatory to the Convention on the rights of refugees and has a history of systematic human rights violations. [18] The further migrants are detected from EU territory, the greater chance EU Member States have of evading their obligation to rescue them. If Eurosur does enhance “pre-frontier” detection, it is probable that this trend will intensify rather than result in more lives being saved. The current attitude towards illegalised migrants will likely prevail - trying at all cost to prevent them from arriving on EU territory with Eurosur simply a new sophisticated tool to allow states to control their borders, despite the structural violations and deaths that this generates. [19] Eurosur’s humanitarian varnish cannot hide the fact that militarisation and surveillance are the cause of migrants’ deaths, not the solutions to prevent them.

WatchTheMed: a civil society counter-surveillance network

The EU and neighbouring states are linking up their surveillance systems under the framework of Eurosur to police the movement of people. They aim to shed light on acts of clandestine movement but leave in the shadows the violations of migrants’ rights they repeatedly commit. EU Member States and Frontex maintain a high degree of opacity as to their operations and the Eurosur regulation provides no mechanism for oversight by civil society. To exercise a critical right to look at the EU’s maritime borders, migrants’ rights organisations, activists and researchers are developing an online mapping platform called “WatchTheMed” (WTM, This tool allows these actors to monitor the activities of border controllers in this area and map with precision the violations of migrants’ rights at sea in an attempt to determine which authorities have responsibility for them. By interviewing survivors as well as using some of the same technologies as Eurosur - vessel tracking technologies, satellite imagery, georeferenced positions from satellite phones - and spatialising the data that emerges from these sources, WTM is able to ask some of the following questions:

In which SAR zone was a vessel in distress and which state was responsible for its rescue?
Which vessels were in the vicinity?
If the vessel was rescued, were passengers taken to a territory in which they could apply for international protection or were they pushed back?

WTM operates as an online and participative maritime control room, albeit with opposite aims to those of border controllers: it seeks to enable critical actors to pressure authorities to respect migrants’ rights and denounce their (in)action when they violate them.


[1] Statement by President Barroso following his visit to Lampedusa, European Commission - SPEECH/13/792 09/10/2013. link

[2] This effect is explicitly recognised in the CIVIPOL report referred to below, which notes that while the majority of clandestine migrations by sea use “focal routes” in which “geography dictates the locations - straits or narrow passages where Schengen countries lie close to countries of transit or migration,” they observe that “when a standard destination is shut off by surveillance and interception measures, attempts to enter tend to shift to another, generally more difficult, destination on a broader and therefore riskier stretch of water”. CIVIPOL, Feasibility study on the control of the European Union’s maritime borders, p.9. transmitted 4 July 2003 to the European Commission (JHA), document 11490/1/03 (2003), link

The splintering of routes towards more dangerous trajectories is also widely observed in academic literature - see for example Hein De Haas, “The Myth of Invasion: The inconvenient realities of migration from Africa to the European Union,” Third World Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 17: 1305–22, 2008
[3] See link and link

[4] Frontex General Report 2012, p. 20, link

[5] As a measure of this, Frontex provides the following: “The fact that the number of nodes in the Network tripled, and the number of irregular-migration and related border-crime events and documents exchanged doubled between the first and second half of 2012, can be seen as two good measures of the success of the Eurosur Network.” Frontex, ibid.

[6] CIVIPOL report, p. 65-67

[7] Frontex General Report 2012, p.20

[8] link

[9] Member States will be able to upgrade their national border surveillance capacities with support from the EU’s External Borders Fund (EBF, worth a total €1,820 million between 2007 and 2013) and Internal Security Fund (€4,648 million over the same period), while funds from the EBF and the 7th EU Framework Programme for research and development (FP7) are available to conduct studies. FP7 funds have been instrumental in the conduct of research and development projects to improve surveillance tools, with over €68 million awarded to projects related to Eurosur from 2007-2013. From 2014-2020, the EU’s Horizon 2020 will provide €3.4 billion for security research projects, for which one theme is “border security and external security”. Measures in third countries will be supported by the Thematic Programme for Asylum and Migration, which is part of the Development Cooperation Instrument.

[10] Ben Hayes, Matthias Vermeulen, ‘Borderline: The EU’s New Border Surveillance Initiatives’, Heinrich Böll Foundation, June 2012, link, p.49

[11] JRC-Frontex, Spaceborne SAR Small Boat Detection Campaign – Italy & Spain, 2011: link

[12] Frontex, Programme of Work 2013, p.109-110, link

[13] In an article titled “To the Rescue…” on Frontex’s website dedicated to operations in Lampedusa, it notes that: “Despite the name, most search-and-rescue (SAR) cases in Lampedusa do not start with search. Around 90% of cases are initiated by distress calls, either via the international distress frequency, (‘May Day’ Channel 16) or to a pre-arranged civilian on the mainland to raise the alarm; often a priest or member of a migrant-friendly organisation who then contacts the coast guard”: link

[14] link

Negotiations between the Council and the European Parliament - which took place behind closed doors in secret “trilogues” - were completed in June 2013 when the two institutions finally agreed on a text. MEPs insisted on inserting a number of other provisions dealing with saving lives. A new paragraph in the preamble states that “the practice of travelling in small and unseaworthy vessels has dramatically increased the number of migrants drowning at the southern maritime external borders,” and that: “Eurosur should considerably improve the operational and technical ability of the Agency and MS to detect these small vessels and to improve the reaction capability of the Member States thereby contributing to reduce the loss of lives of migrants.” Further provisions were added in Article 1 (subject matter), Article 2 (scope), Article 3 (definitions) and Article 9 (National Situational Picture), which obliges the creation of a “sub-layer” within that picture on “unauthorised border-crossings including information, available to the national coordination centre, on incidents relating to a risk for the lives of migrants.”

[15] European Day for Border Guards, 23 May 2013, Poland. Panel Discussion III, Eurosur and the Future of Border Management. link

[16] See: link

[17] See: link

[18] See: link

[19] It should be noted that in an important report on the external borders of the EU, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Migrants Rights came to similar conclusions: “The Special Rapporteur acknowledges that the draft legislation to create EUROSUR requires Member States and Frontex to “give priority” to the special needs of persons in distress at sea, as well as children, asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and those in need of medical attention, and the Commission has repeatedly stressed EUROSUR’s future role in “protecting and saving lives of migrants”. Yet the Special Rapporteur regrets that the proposal does not, however, lay down any procedures, guidelines, or systems for ensuring that rescue at sea is implemented effectively as a paramount objective. Moreover, the proposed Regulation fails to define how exactly this will be done, nor are there any procedures laid down for what should be done with those “rescued”. In this context, the Special Rapporteur fears that EUROSUR is destined to become just another tool that will be at the disposal of member States in order to secure borders and prevent arrivals, rather than a genuine life-saving tool.” François Crépeau, Special Rapporteur on Migrants Rights “Regional study: management of the external borders of the European Union and its impact on the human rights of migrants”, 24 April 2013, p. 11.

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