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13th Jul 2020

NGO rescue boats do not receive Frontex alerts

  • The NGO Sea-Watch does not receive distress alerts from Frontex (Photo: Sea Watch)

The NGO rescue boat Sea-Watch says it does not receive any alerts of maritime distress from the EU's border agency Frontex, whenever the agency spots people in trouble in the Mediterranean.

"Frontex would not alert civil rescue ships like Sea-Watch of any distress cases they find, as they know we would then take people to a safe port in Europe," a spokesperson from the charity told EUobserver, in an email.

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The German NGO instead relies on its own civil search aircraft Moonbird to scope out vast territories north of Libyan waters, as European state-run rescues have all but disappeared.

The same NGO has been entangled in legal disputes, after the Italian government implemented stricter migration policies in 2017, criminalising such search and rescue operations.

Last year, Italian police arrested the Sea-Watch crew, along with its captain, for disembarking some 53 people rescued at sea on the island of Lampedusa.

Today, the Sea Watch remains largely isolated in its efforts to ensure those rescued are not returned to Libya where they face prison, slavery, rape and even death.

"Frontex is another EU-sanctioned player with complicity in the ongoing deaths and deadly crimes occurring in the Mediterranean Sea in recent years, and still today," added Sea-Watch, accusing the EU agency of militarising and controlling Europe's border from the sea.

Asked to comment, a spokesperson from the Warsaw-based agency said that whenever its airplane spots a boat in distress, they inform relevant Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC) responsible for search and rescue in line with the international conventions.

"The search and rescue coordinator has a list of all available assets with the capability to rescue lives and will dispatch the closest or most capable one immediately," said Frontex.

In a post-publication email, Frontex pointed out that it assists in the rescue of tens of thousands of people every year. "In the past five years, we have been involved in the rescue of no less than 340 000 people in all our maritime operations," said a spokesperson.

But Libya's MRCC was largely bankrolled by the EU and Italy under the aegis of the war-torn country's ministry of defence.

Oxfam condemnation

Oxfam, an International NGO, in a report out last week accused the EU of tailoring its development aid money to meet domestic political priorities at the expense of development.

It pointed out that projects directly connected to migration management and border controls increased in 2018–19, in comparison with 2015–17, at the expense of development cooperation projects.

That money came from the EU Emergency Trust Fund - which also bankrolled the Libyan Coast Guard to the tune of €90m since 2017.

"European governments seem determined to prevent migration at any cost. They are putting short-term wins over strategies that work in the long run, at the expense of those most in need," said Oxfam's EU migration policy advisor Raphael Shilhav, and co-author of the report, in a statement.

This article was updated on 7 February 2020 at 13:35 to include a statement on Frontex-assisted rescues at sea.

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