Mediterranean: European Contact Group on Search and Rescue failing to meet transparency requirements


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.

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UPDATE, 7 May 2021: Following publication of this article, the European Commission published documents and information related to the Contact Group (the terms of reference, the agenda of the first meeting (the minutes are awaiting approval), and the institutions representing the member states). A table showing the member institutions is included below.

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:

  1. 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;
  2. To establish a framework for the exchange of information and experiences;
  3. To establish a compilation of national rules and practices in the field of search and rescue;
  4. To identify possible means of improved cooperation among competent authorities and develop common practices in this field, in compliance with the applicable international and European legal framework;
  5. To assist the Commission to monitor the implementation of the Commission Recommendation (EU) 2020/1365 of 23 September 2020 on cooperation among Member States concerning operations carried out by vessels owned or operated by private entities for the purpose of search and rescue activities and issue, once a year, a report to the Commission;
  6. To advise and assist the Commission’s on matters related to search and rescue, within the limits of the Union’s competences.

Members of the Contact Group on Search and Rescue, as of May 2021

State Institutions/Agencies participating in the group
Austria Ministry of Interior  
Belgium Federal Public Service of Transports Police
Bulgaria Ministry of Interior Marine Administration Executive Agency
Croatia Ministry of the Interior  
Cyprus Asylum Service Joint Rescue Coordination Center
Czech Republic Ministry of interior  
Denmark Ministry of Defense Ministry of Immigration and Integration
Estonia Estonian Police and Border Guard Board Ministry of Interior
Finland Ministry of the Interior  
France Ministry of Ecological Transition Permanent Representation of France to the EU
Germany Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure Federal Ministry of the Interior
Greece Hellenic Coast Guard Ministry of Migration and Asylum
Hungary National Directorate-General for Aliens Policing Police HQs
Italy Ministry of Infrastructures and Transport Ministry of the Interior
Latvia Latvian Coastguard Service Permanent Representation of Latvia to the EU
Lithuania Ministry of National Defence Ministry of the Interior
Luxembourg Permanent Representation of Luxembourg to the EU  
Malta Armed Forces of Malta Malta Police Force
Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management Ministry of Justice and Security
Poland Ministry of Affairs Interior and Administration Maritime Search and Rescue Service
Portugal Foreigners and Borders Service National Republican Guard
Romania Ministry of Internal Affairs Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure
Slovakia Ministry of Interior  
Slovenia Slovenian Maritime Administration Ministry of Interior
Spain Ministerio de Transportes, Movilidad y Agenda Urban Ministry of Interior
Sweden Minister of Foreign affairs Ministry of Justice
Iceland Not stated  
Liechtenstein Not stated  
Norway Not stated  
Switzerland Not stated  

Image: Open Arms

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