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19th Sep 2020

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.

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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.

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