Border surveillance and deaths at sea: Frontex’s invisible flights come under scrutiny

Interest in Frontex’s “Multipurpose Aerial Surveillance” activities picked up in April this year, when journalist Sergio Scandura documented the presence of Frontex-operated aircraft above the Mediterranean over the Easter weekend. Four migrant boats with approximately 280 people on board were left in distress situations for days, despite repeated calls for intervention, leading directly to “pull-backs” to Libya and deaths at sea.


“For three years, Frontex has been chartering small aircraft for the surveillance of the EU’s external borders. First Italy was thus supported, then Croatia followed. Frontex keeps the planes details secret, and the companies also switch off the transponders for position display during operations.

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Because these “push-backs” are prohibited, Frontex has since 2017 been helping with so-called “pull-backs” by bringing refugees back to Libya by the Libyan coast guard rather than by EU units. With the “Multipurpose Aerial Surveillance”, Frontex is de facto conducting air reconnaissance for Libya. By November 2019, the EU border agency had notified Libyan authorities about refugee boats on the high seas in at least 42 cases.

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This is probably the reason why Frontex disguises the exact location of its air surveillance. Private maritime rescue organisations have repeatedly pointed out that Frontex aircrafts occasionally switch off their transponders so that they cannot be tracked via ADS-B. In the answer now available, this is confirmed by the EU Commission. According to this, the visibility of the aircraft would disclose “sensitive operational information” and, in combination with other kinds of information, “undermine” the operational objectives.”

See: Frontex Aircraft: below the radar against international law by Matthias Monroy

Frontex’s Multipurpose Aerial Surveillance includes satellites and drones as well as surveillance flights, with plans to station large drones in the Mediterranean by 2021, which are intended to be deployed for four years.

Regarding the blocking of flight information for Frontex-chartered planes, flight tracking websites were unable or unwilling to provide any details. Aircraft tracker FlightAware responded to questions from Statewatch with:

“We follow the FAA [USA Federal Aviation Administration] block list. Any owner or operator may choose to add their aircraft to this block list… I am sorry but we would not be able to disclose what companies or persons have contacted us regarding blocking options”.

Despite the lack of appropriate response by any EU member state maritime authority over that Easter weekend, in a LIBE Committee hearing on 06 July 2020, Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri questioned the role of NGO search and rescue vessels in the Mediterranean, stating that only member states have the capacity to render assistance to those in distress at sea.

He went on to clarify Frontex’s surveillance activities by claiming that Italy, Malta and Tunisia are routinely notified of distress situations at sea, and that Libya is alerted only in “urgency situations”. However, he also stated that Frontex provides “real-time” information to the Libya’s EU-funded Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Tripoli.

Frontex also undertakes aerial surveillance at the EU’s external land borders and has been providing real-time aerial surveillance at Croatia’s border with Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2018. Pushbacks, violence and degrading treatment at this border have been well documented, culminating recently with a UN call for investigation and sanctions against those responsible.

The tragedies of the Easter weekend were also covered recently by the BBC series ‘Meanwhile’, in its episode ‘Meanwhile in the Med’.

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