Friday

19th Jan 2018

EU border chief: 23,000 lives saved last year

  • North African fishing boats abandoned in Sicilian harbour (Photo: Paul Keller)

"Seventy-two people are [sic] dying in front of me," Ethiopian boat survivor Abu Kurke told EUobserver in Brussels on Thursday (11 October).

Kurke is one of the nine people out of 72 who survived a tragic attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea by boat in April last year. Infants as young as one perished.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

Nobody came to help them despite having been spotted by warships, a helicopter and fishing boats.

"We received water on the first day from a helicopter. Nobody [had] died at that time. We showed to them small children like a one-year-old baby. Even the man inside the helicopter showed me a sign like he is coming back. He never came back again. We saw a lot of ships, a lot of warships," said Kurke.

The boat later drifted back to the Libyan coastline after 16 days on the open water. Another two people drowned as they made their way to shore. The rest were thrown into prison and tortured, said Kurke. He himself spent months behind bars.

Kurke and his wife now live near Rotterdam in the Netherlands after having endured a saga that will haunt them for ever.

The crossing was his second attempt.

The first one was in 2010, but Italian authorities caught him at sea and escorted him back to Libya.

"I was coming to Italy in a small boat. We came to Italy and then we saw the Italian coast guard, we saw the Italian flag so we were very happy that time. So they came close to us [and] said they are going to help. The Italians took us on the boat. They lied to us like in a film and told us we are going to Sicily to get medical help. They took us back to Libya," Kurke recalled.

A similar case was later brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg by Hirsi Jamaa, a boat migrant representing a group of Somali and Eritrean nationals who tried to reach Europe in May 2009.

Italy lost.

The court ruled that member states' authorities may not return asylum seekers to a country which cannot guarantee fundamental rights.

At the time, Libya had no functioning asylum system and it still does not have one. The aftermath of Colonel Gaddafi's death in October last year has instead left a power vacuum filled by lawlessness.

Fundamental rights on Frontex agenda

For its part, Frontex, the EU's Warsaw-based border guard agency, says it has no bilateral relations with Libya as things stand.

"They are restructuring their whole public administration including the boarder security system," Frontex executive-director Ilkka Laitinen told this website in an interview also on Wednesday.

Laitinen said that Frontex and Libya only share the most basic of information and that the agency could help the post-Gaddafi administration with training exercises if it is asked to.

Frontex wants Libya to build up its capacity before engaging in joint operations with the Libyan authorities in the future. It also foresees flying intelligence-gathering drones over the Mediterranean in the "very, very far future."

Despite Laitinen's reservations on Libya, Frontex has been taking part in rescue efforts in the region since 2008. Frontex-linked operations saved some 38 percent of people detected at sea, 23,000 people in total, in 247 cases in 2011.

"Every third migrant detected in the maritime domain is in distress and saved," the Frontex chief said.

"It's a pity and totally regrettable that so many people still die. The authorities are not able to rescue all of them, but the good thing is that the percentage of rescued people is still high," he added.

The number of migrants attempting to make the perilous journey has increased since August.

As for the kind of push-backs experienced by Kurke in 2010, Laitinen said Frontex is rolling out measures to help prevent it.

The agency's first fundamental rights officer will start her work in mid-December and will have a mandate to launch internal investigations on all operational activities.

A new "Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights" will also give instructions to Frontex' management board on best practice. The European Commission and member states are on the Frontex board but the European Parliament is not.

The forum will include Frontex officers seconded from EU countries, commission officials, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, the UN agency for refugees (UNHCR), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the European Asylum Support Office and a number of other NGOs.

"What I learned last summer [in the Libya conflict] I think was sort of a watershed. It was that member states are more and more understanding of violating these principles ... They are not talking about pushing back people or diverting people that much. It's totally different than what it was five years ago," said Laitinen.

Some organisations say Frontex is lacking a fundamental rights strategy even considering the changes, however.

Migreurop, a Europan-African group of 43 NGOs, says the agency needs a clear monitoring mechanism on co-operation with third countries.

It also notes that EU countries in September annulled a provision in the Schengen Borders Code, the rulebook on EU border management, on sea surveillance in Frontex operations.

Under the amended text, Frontex-supervised guards are free to hand people on board ships "to the authorities of a third country."

Laitinen noted that Frontex has EU-level agreements in place to prevent push-backs.

But he admitted the agreements put power in the hands of the "host" country in charge of a given operation.

"If I am asked how I can guarantee something, I might say I am not able to guarantee anything because I have no control directly," he said.

Rights NGOs face fresh threats in EU

While ongoing crackdowns in Poland and Hungary have put the spotlight on rights groups, NGOs are now under new political and financial pressure across the EU, the Fundamental Rights Agency said.

News in Brief

  1. Germany confirms attendance at air quality summit
  2. Nearly half of 'fixed' Dieselgate cars show problems
  3. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook up hate speech deletion
  4. UK mulls bridge to France
  5. German far-right float anti-asylum bill
  6. EU Parliament to investigate glyphosate-decision process
  7. 'Mutagenesis' falls outside EU's GMO rules, says EU top lawyer
  8. Decision on Polish MEP's Nazi-era slur postponed

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Solutions for Sustainable Cities: New Grants Awarded for Branding Projects
  2. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersOresund Inspires Other EU Border Regions to Work Together to Generate Growth
  4. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  5. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Calls on EU to Sanction Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Expel Ambassadors
  6. Dialogue PlatformRoundtable on "Political Islam, Civil Islam and The West" 31 January
  7. ILGA EuropeFreedom of Movement and Same-Sex Couples in Romania – Case Update!
  8. EU2017EEEstonia Completes First EU Presidency, Introduced New Topics to the Agenda
  9. Bio-Based IndustriesLeading the Transition Towards a Post-Petroleum Society
  10. ACCAWelcomes the Start of the New Bulgarian Presidency
  11. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li and President Tusk Stress Importance of Ties at ASEM Summit
  12. EU2017EEVAT on Electronic Commerce: New Rules Adopted

Latest News

  1. Middle East, Messi and missing MEPs on the agenda This WEEK
  2. Instagram and Google Plus join EU anti-hate speech drive
  3. EU wants 'entrepreneurship' in education systems
  4. UK loses EU satellite centre to Spain
  5. Pay into EU budget for market access, Macron tells May
  6. Ethiopian regime to get EU migrants' names
  7. EU to lend Greece up to €7bn more next week
  8. Nato prepares to take in Macedonia

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressChair of EU Parliament Working Group on Antisemitism Condemns Wave of Attacks
  2. Counter BalanceA New Study Challenges the Infrastructure Mega Corridors Agenda
  3. Dialogue PlatformThe Gülen Community: Who to Believe - Politicians or Actions?" by Thomas Michel
  4. Plastics Recyclers Europe65% Plastics Recycling Rate Attainable by 2025 New Study Shows
  5. European Heart NetworkCommissioner Andriukaitis' Address to EHN on the Occasion of Its 25th Anniversary
  6. ACCACFOs Risk Losing Relevance If They Do Not Embrace Technology
  7. UNICEFMake the Digital World Safer for Children & Increase Access for the Most Disadvantaged
  8. European Jewish CongressWelcomes Recognition of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel and Calls on EU States to Follow Suit
  9. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Boost Innovation Cooperation Under Horizon 2020
  10. European Gaming & Betting AssociationJuncker’s "Political" Commission Leaves Gambling Reforms to the Court
  11. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Applauds U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital City
  12. EU2017EEEU Telecom Ministers Reached an Agreement on the 5G Roadmap