25th Mar 2018

Italy and Malta say 'No' to Frontex rules in sea rescue operations

  • Poverty and conflict drive many to attempt the perilous Mediterranean crossing (Photo: Frontex)

A handful of Mediterranean member states are against proposed EU rules on how to save migrants out at sea.

Despite calls for greater EU support by their heads of state, Italy and Malta say the European Commission does not have the appropriate legal powers to lead search and rescue and disembarkation operations in the Mediterranean.

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They are backed by Greece, Spain, France, and Cyprus.

“All these countries are asking the other member states to help them and to take responsibility but at the same time they don’t want those member states to be responsible for the search and rescue through common guidelines drawn up by the commission,” Ann Singleton, co-chair of the trustees of the UK-based civil liberties group Statewatch, told this website on Wednesday (16 October),

Singleton, who is also a research centre head at the University of Bristol, said the member states are reluctant to cede sovereign powers over to the EU in any meaningful, positive common migration policy.

Instead the EU has ended up with “a hotch-potch of counter-productive control of immigration border policies”, which has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths over the last decade.

Public announcements against accepting more migrants have put the six on guard.

“From their perspective, they are seeing announcements by other member states saying that they don’t want to accept any more refugees and migrants,” said Singleton.

All six have maritime territories that extend out to the Mediterranean Sea where each year thousands of migrants and refugees cross to the EU.

The commission in April put forward a proposal on rules of engagement for joint patrolling and the disembarkation of intercepted or rescued persons at sea.

It says member states can sometimes apply different and even conflicting rules in the same sea operation. The breach of fundamental rights and so-called push backs would be guaranteed, says the commission.

“Amidst this legal uncertainty, member states’ participation in sea operations co-ordinated by the agency [Frontex] was low in terms of contributing craft, vessels and human resources,” notes the commission proposal.

But the six member states, in a document dated 10 October, say the ideas on search and rescue situations and returning those rescued to land “constitutes a red line.”

They say existing international rules are sufficient and that it is up to member states to carry them out.

The European Commission input and competence, it notes, “is highly questionable.”

They also contest a European Court of Justice decision that the European Parliament has any say in the matter.

A Maltese diplomat told this website that the proposed provisions on search and rescue and disembarkation risks creating discrepancies with existing international law.

“This in no way implies opposition to Frontex-coordinated joint operations, nor does it in any way detract from the effectiveness of the operation, ” he said.

He pointed out that Malta supports an enhanced role for Frontex-coordinated operations at the Mediterranean.

The show of protest comes at a sensitive moment.

Over 350 migrants died two weeks ago after their boat caught fire and capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa.

In a separate incident a week later, some 200 migrants and Syrian refugees were rescued in a joint-Maltese and Italian operation, although 34 perished.

The two disasters drew widespread condemnation from national and EU leaders as Syrian refugees and migrants continue to embark across the waters regardless of the dangers.

Some 32,000 are said to have attempted the crossing to Italy since the beginning of the year up to the end of September.

EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom had on 8 October, in the wake of the Lampedusa disaster, announced that Frontex would expand its rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

“I have asked the ministers to give their political support and to make the necessary resources available,” she said.

Member states have yet to receive any formal details of Malmstrom’s plan.

A EU source close to the issue said they are unlikely to make any decision in the near future on her proposal.

The commission, for its part, is currently discussing Malmstrom’s plans with Frontex.


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