23 April 2021
In response to ongoing deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, the European Commission set up a ‘Contact Group on Search and Rescue’, made up of EU member state authorities. It aims to establish a “structured framework for cooperation at EU level in order to ensure rapid response in case of events at sea as well as maintaining safety of navigation and ensuring effective migration management.” A month after its first meeting, as avoidable deaths and a lack of assistance to vessels in distress in the Mediterranean continue, it is failing to meet its own transparency requirements.
Failings in transparency
The Commission is required to publish the names of the national authorities participating in the group – who ideally should nominate “one expert in migration issues and one expert in search and rescue/transport issues, preferably at the level of head of department” – but it has not yet done so, instead only listing the names of the states themselves. A similar problem afflicted the Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Information Systems and Interoperability.
The Group is also required to publish: “All relevant documents, including the agendas, the minutes and the participants’ submissions,” as well as “other relevant background documents in due time” ahead of meetings. The first meeting took place on 22 March. The agenda for that meeting is not yet publicly available; nor are the group’s rules of procedure.
These transparency requirements stem from the Group’s terms of reference – another document that the Commission has not yet published, although Statewatch is making them available here: Informal Commission Expert Group “European Contact Group on Search and Rescue” – Terms of Reference (pdf). The document was released on 26 March in response to an access to documents request – four days after the first meeting of the Contact Group – yet the response said that the terms of reference were a draft that had not yet been adopted.
The Contact Group was launched as part of the Pact on Migration and Asylum, through a Recommendation that mandated it to:
“…compile an overview of national rules and practices, identify lessons learnt, assess the possibility to create improved means of cooperation between the flag and coastal states with regard to their tasks and responsibilities, and develop best practices which would reflect the needs ensuing from the search and rescue operations as they have developed over the past years.”
The draft terms of reference set out six objectives for the group, the first of which is:
“To establish cooperation/coordination between the Commission, Member States and stakeholders on questions relating to search and rescue operations, with a focus on those carried out by private vessels operated or owned for the specific purpose of search and rescue, in consideration of their significant impact on the implementation of Union legislation, programmes and policies.” (emphasis added)
The last time the Commission took a concerted interest in search and rescue by private vessels, it resulted in the drafting, with the Italian authorities, of a Code of Conduct for NGO vessels that led to multiple organizations having to halt operations in the Mediterranean.
Failings at sea
The need for improved coordination of the actors involved in search and rescue at sea is evident – if the intention is to save lives.
Just yesterday, the crew of the vessel Ocean Viking (operated by the NGO SOS Mediterranee) and a number of merchant ships “searched relentlessly” for three boats in distress of the coast of Libya, “without receiving support from the responsible maritime authorities.” They did not reach the shipwrecks in time; Alarm Phone estimates that up to 130 people died.
Earlier this month, three dinghies carrying 270 people that were inside the Maltese search and rescue zone were actively ignored by the Maltese authorities and passing ships. The Civil Society Network accused the Maltese government of “not only moral bankruptcy, but a serious breach of international law.”
It was reported that all those on the boats were eventually taken to Lampedusa, although there was no confirmation of the 110 passengers of the third boat reaching the Italian island. Other examples of non-assistance are not hard to find, and in fact are scrupulously documented by NGOs such as Alarm Phone.
In a blog post and a speech for first meeting of the Contact Group, Ylva Johansson, the Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, did not directly raise the issue of states' failure to assist people in distress at sea – and in fact ended her speech by underlining the importance of deportations as being “essential to undermine the smugglers' business model.”
She ended by emphasizing the “common goal”: “To work together to save lives and better manage migration.” Events have shown that the enthusiasm for “managing migration” does not necessarily contribute to saving lives. Meanwhile, the Contact Group charged with meeting these goals appears to be operating in opacity.
Tasks of the Contact Group on Search and Rescue
Taken from the terms of reference (pdf).
The group’s tasks shall be:
Image: Open Arms
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