Tag Archives: Search and Rescue

Satellite Imagery Used by Frontex to Detect and Rescue Migrant Boats

While the use by Frontex of satellite imagery is not new, Frontex released a copy of a satellite image used last week to detect and rescue 370 people on Eurosur Fusion Services imageryboard three inflatable boats off the Libyan coast. (It is unclear whether the image made available by Frontex shows the actual spatial resolution available to Frontex.)

According to Frontex, the imagery is part of “Frontex’s Eurosur Fusion Services … made possible by the cooperation between experts at Frontex and the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), Italian authorities and EUNAVFORMED. … The Eurosur [fusion] services already include automated large vessel tracking and detection capabilities, software functionalities allowing complex calculations for predicting positions and detecting suspicious activities of vessels, as well as precise weather and oceanographic forecasts. Fusion Services use optical and radar satellite technology to help locate vessels at sea. Recent upgrades of their technical capabilities make it possible to spot smaller vessels.”

Frontex has used satellite imagery for years, for example in 2008 during Frontex Operation Hera off Mauritania, Amnesty International reported that satellite photos would be presented to Mauritanian authorities to demonstrate that migrants on board a particular migrant boat had departed from Mauritania territory. (Amnesty International, “Mauritania: ‘Nobody Wants to Have Anything to Do With Us,’ Arrests and Collective Expulsions of Migrants Denied Entry Into Europe,” 1 July 2008.)

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The EU’s Proposed Plan to Destroy Migrant Boats in Libya Must be Rejected by the European Council

A plan for EU Member States to capture or destroy the boats used by people smugglers in the Mediterranean is one of ten possible courses of action that will be considered during the Extraordinary European Council Meeting on the Situation in the Mediterranean that will be held on 23 April.

The boat destruction proposal should be rejected for multiple reasons. There is no basis in law for the proposal and it would endanger lives of innocent people including migrants and fishermen, among others. It would certainly have little effect on its intended target, the people smugglers.

EU migration commissioner Avramopoulos described the plan, which has been recommended by the Foreign Affairs Council which met on 20 April, as a civil-military operation which would “capture and destroy vessels used by smugglers.” Avramopoulos reportedly compared the proposed EU boat destruction plan to Operation ATALANTA, the EU’s maritime operation against piracy off Somalia, saying that Atalanta “should inspire us for new operations against smugglers in the Mediterranean.”

As is always the case, the specific details of the proposed plan matter. There are situations where the destruction of a migrant boat under certain circumstances may be perfectly legal and otherwise appropriate. For example after a rescue operation when migrants have been safely removed from an unflagged and unseaworthy vessel, it may be appropriate for that vessel to be destroyed at sea rather than taking it in tow or leaving it adrift and thereby creating a navigational hazard. In such circumstances, there is no reason for an EU coast guard vessel, after migrants have been transferred from a migrant boat, to stand by and allow smugglers to take possession of the now empty migrant boat.

But if the EU boat destruction plan were to authorise the use of armed force to capture or destroy a smuggling boat at sea, particularly in the face of armed resistance from people smugglers, or if it were to authorise the destruction of boats at anchor in Libyan harbours, it is difficult to imagine how such a plan could be carried without endangering the lives of migrants and fisherman and thereby violating international humanitarian and human rights law.

Frontex and Italian patrol boats have already experienced armed threats at sea during rescue operations. One situation occurred on 13 April when armed people smugglers fired into the air to recover an empty migrant boat after an Italian tugboat and the Icelandic Coast Guard vessel Týr deployed by Frontex had rescued a group of migrants.  The Frontex vessel did not engage the people smugglers with force and allowed the smugglers to return to Libya with the empty migrant boat. If Frontex vessels or coast guard vessels were now to be called upon to use some level of appropriate force to prevent such incidents, rescue operations would be delayed, further complicated, and the rescued migrants would be placed in danger.

In regard to the possible destruction of boats at anchor in a Libyan harbour, the EU cannot engage in the proposed civil-military operation without having a legal basis to do so. One possible source of authority would be the invocation of Chapter VII of the UN Charter by the UN Security Council, but this would require the finding that the flow of migrant boats constitutes a threat to international peace and security. While the security situation in Libya or Syria might well constitute such a threat, the large scale movement of migrants by people smugglers does not.

Chapter VII has of course been invoked to authorise the EU Operation ATALANTA after the Security Council authorised of the use of force off Somalia in international waters and in Somalian territorial waters (as well as within Somalian territory). But the legal basis for Operation ATALANTA has no relevance to the proposed EU boat destruction plan. The suppression of piracy in international waters is authorised and governed by specialized international law and customary international practice relating to the suppression of piracy. There is no equivalent basis in international law for the suppression of people smuggling.

Chapter VII was likewise invoked in 2011 to authorise the use of force by NATO in Libya. The Security Council again made the necessary determination that the situation in Libya at the time was a threat to international peace. Among the factors referenced by the Security Council in Resolution 1973 was the plight of refugees and foreign workers who were subject to violence and who were forced to flee Libya. The resolution praised Tunisia and Egypt for protecting the fleeing refugees and called on the international community to support the efforts. It would be repugnant if today the ongoing violence in Libya was somehow used as a legal basis for a use of force which would serve to trap and endanger migrants, rather than making them safer.

In addition to the serious legal questions relating to the use of force to capture and destroy smugglers’ boats, there are serious practical concerns. Take the example of the unprecedented boat disaster and the 900 deaths that occurred earlier this week. One of the likely reasons for the massive death toll was the large number of persons who were locked below the main deck of the boat. What precautions would prevent the destruction of a suspected smuggling vessel at anchor with hundreds of people below deck and out of sight? Would the EU boat destruction plan require that any capture or destruction of a suspected smuggling boat be carried out by deploying EU military personnel on the ground in Libya with the resulting ability to more closely inspect a vessel before its destruction? Or would the plan permit destruction of a suspected smuggling boat by armed drones or military aircraft? If the destruction could occur through the use of aircraft, people will be killed, and it is more likely that those who will be killed will be migrants or innocent fisherman and not the people smugglers.

The easiest targets for destruction will be the larger fishing vessels that are being used by the people smugglers. But not so long ago the smuggling boats of choice were the Zodiacs and other large or medium–sized inflatable boats powered by outboard engines. This type of boat can be easily stored in vehicles or storage buildings and quickly moved into the water when needed. It would be an easy tactical shift on the part of the people smugglers to resume the use of inflatables if the larger fishing vessels were no longer obtainable.

The European Council needs to take new and significant steps to respond to this crisis. A focus on people smugglers should certainly be something that is addressed, but while the people smugglers are taking advantage of the crisis, they are not the cause. The EU response needs to instead focus on expanded search and rescue (i.e. Mare Nostrum plus – not Operation Triton plus) and creating alternative safe paths for people to seek protection in the EU or in other appropriate countries. The boat destruction plan should be rejected.


Filed under Analysis, European Union, Frontex, Italy, Libya, Mediterranean, Refugees, United Nations

Lampedusa – 300 or more dead in latest accident, what can be done to stop migrant deaths at sea?

Italian authorities have so far recovered about 120 bodies from yesterday’s accident a very very short distance from the shores of Lampedusa. Authorities believe there may be more than 150 bodies of children, women, and men still to be recovered.

What can be done to prevent such deaths? It is certainly possible that nothing could have prevented yesterday’s disaster.  This was not a case of a disabled boat left to drift at sea while ships and aircraft failed to assist.  This was not a case involving a failure to act promptly to rescue persons in distress.  This was not a case of a diplomatic dispute between countries over which country had the responsibility to rescue and where rescued persons were to be disembarked after rescue.  It may turn out to be the case that someone observed the overloaded migrant boat as it sailed from Libya towards Lampedusa.  If the migrant boat was observed by a commercial or military ship, a rescue operation probably should have been implemented immediately.  But while the Mediterranean Sea is crowded with ships, it is certainly possible that this boat sailed unobserved from Libya to Lampedusa.

Could anything have been done to prevent these deaths?

Could anything have been done to prevent the deaths of 13 migrants who drowned on the beach at Sicily last week? Or the 31 people who drowned off the Libyan coast in July? Or the 20 who died near Lesvos Island in Greece last December, the 89 who died in the Strait of Gibraltar over 10 days in October-November 2012, or the 58 who died off the coast of Izmir, Turkey in September 2012?  (For a more complete list of reported deaths at sea consult Fortress Europe’s La Strage web page (the Massacre).)

As long as people move, whether forced to flee danger or to improve their lives or for other reasons, there will be dangers on land and sea.  The dangers will always be greater when people are compelled to move outside of legal channels. Creating more opportunities for legal migration and creating an external procedure for seeking refugee protection within the EU would help many people and would reduce the numbers of people traveling by dangerous means.  But there will still be people unable to secure a visa or protection who would be compelled to travel by sea. 

There are many measures that can be taken by the EU to reduce the numbers of people dying in the Mediterranean and off the coast of western Africa.  As a reminder, here is an excerpt from the recommendations issued last year by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in the report issued in the aftermath of the deaths of 63 people on board the “left to die” boat that drifted in the Mediterranean for two weeks. The recommendations made sense then as they do now:

  •  fill the vacuum of responsibility for an SAR zone left by a State which cannot or does not exercise its responsibility for search and rescue, such as was the case for Libya. This may require amending the International Maritime Search and Rescue Convention (SAR Convention)….;
  • ensure that there are clear and simple guidelines, which are then followed, on what amounts to a distress signal, so as to avoid any confusion over the obligation to launch a search and rescue operation for a boat in distress;
  • avoid differing interpretations of what constitutes a vessel in distress, in particular as concerns overloaded, unseaworthy boats, even if under propulsion, and render appropriate assistance to such vessels. Whenever safety requires that a vessel be assisted, this should lead to rescue actions;
  • tackle the reasons why commercial vessels fail to go to the rescue of boats in distress. This will require dealing with:
    • the economic consequences for the rescuing vessel and its owners, and the issue of compensation;
    • the disagreement between Malta and Italy as to whether disembarkation should be to the nearest safe port or to a port within the country of the SAR zone. The International Maritime Organization should be urged to find a solution to the matter and step up its efforts towards a harmonised interpretation and application of international maritime law;
    • the fear of criminalisation (trafficking or aiding and abetting irregular migration) by those who go to the rescue of boats carrying irregular migrants, asylum seekers and refugees;
    • legislation to criminalise private shipmasters who fail to comply with their duty under the law of the sea, as is already the case in certain Council of Europe member States;
  • ensure that, in accordance with the Hirsi v. Italy judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, after the rescue operation, people are not pushed back to a country where they risk being treated in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights;
  • tackle the issue of responsibility sharing, particularly in the context of rescue services, disembarkation, administration of asylum requests, setting up reception facilities and relocation and resettlement, with a view to developing a binding European Union protocol for the Mediterranean region. The heavy burden placed on frontline States leads to a problem of saturation and a reluctance to take responsibility;
  • respect the families’ right to know the fate of those who lose their lives at sea by improving identity data collection and sharing. This could include the setting up of a DNA file of the remains of those retrieved from the Mediterranean Sea. In this context, the ongoing work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other organisations should be acknowledged and supported.

For more on this, see Jack Shenker’s article in today’s Guardian, “Mediterranean migrant deaths: a litany of largely avoidable loss.”


Filed under Council of Europe, European Union, Frontex, Italy, Libya, Mediterranean

Italy Diverts Additional Commercial Ships to Rescue Migrants

The Italian news agency AGI reported that Italian search and rescue authorities yesterday diverted two commercial ships, the Patroclus, a Maltese oil tanker, and the Cdry White, an Italian cargo ship, to assist with the rescue of two groups of migrants.  The first group of approximately 76 migrants was rescued about 40 miles from Tripoli by an Italian coastguard vessel; the group was then transferred to the Cdry White.  The Patroclus appears to have directly rescued a group of approximately 97 migrants south of Lampedusa.  AGI reported that the two commercial ships are sailing to Trapani and Pozzallo in Sicily to disembark the rescued migrants.

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At Least 20 Persons Dead After Migrant Boat Capsizes in Aegean Sea

A migrant boat attempting to sail from Turkey to Greece reportedly capsized near the Greek island of Lesvos on Thursday or Friday.  The boat was carrying about 28 persons.  At least 20 bodies have been recovered.  Only one survivor has been located.  Media reports describe the migrants as Iraqis or “of Asian origin.”  The boat’s captain was reportedly Turkish.

Click here (EN), here (EN) and here (GR) for articles.


Filed under Aegean Sea, European Union, Frontex, Greece, News, Turkey

UN Special Rapporteur on HR of Migrants expresses concern over Italy-Libya cooperation on migration

The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Prof. François Crépeau, for the past six months has been conducting “a one-year comprehensive study to examine the rights of migrants in the Euro-Mediterranean region, focusing in particular on the management of the external borders of the European Union.”  The Special Rapporteur will present a thematic report on the human rights of migrants at the borders of the European Union to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2013.  To date he has concluded official visits to EU offices in Brussels, Tunisia, Turkey, and Italy; a nine-day visit to Greece began on 25 November.  The Special Rapporteur has issued preliminary conclusions at the end of each completed mission.  One common concern is that various actions of the EU and neighbouring countries are resulting in human rights considerations being overshadowed by migration control and security objectives.

At the conclusion of the most recent mission to Italy (30 September – 8 October 2012), the Special Rapporteur expressed concern over Italy’s (and the EU’s) ongoing cooperation with Libya:

“Another matter of paramount importance are the bilateral cooperation agreements negotiated between Italy and its neighbours on the question of migration. Although the EU has negotiated a number of EU wide readmission agreements, the absence of a clear regional framework for such agreements, including a lack of minimum human rights standards, has led to the creation of a number of bilateral readmission agreements between Italy and its neighbours which often do not appear to have human rights at their core.  Of particular concern is the Italy-Libya bilateral cooperation on migration. The 2008 agreement formalised cooperation to strengthen Libya`s capacity to intercept irregular migrants on Libyan territory or territorial waters, even though Libya’s record at effectively protecting the human rights of migrants was poor and reports of human rights abuses of migrants in Libya were frequent. In line with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights pronounced in the Hirsi case that such ‘push-backs’ by Italian authorities towards Libya were not acceptable, the agreement is currently suspended and the Hirsi-defined push-backs appear to have ceased. However, Italy-Libya migration cooperation was recently reinforced through a 2012 processo verbale. This new political framework however, contains very little concrete information on strengthening Libya’s normative framework and institutional capacities regarding the human rights of migrants.”

The Special Rapporteur also expressed concern that the current technical assistance in Search and Rescue capability being provided by Italy to Libya is in effect disguised migration control assistance:

 “Moreover, I have learnt of increased bilateral cooperation between Italian and Libyan authorities regarding search and rescue operations, including the provision of logistical and technical support to Libyan coast guards. Whilst increased search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean is undoubtedly of paramount importance, I have observed that there appears to be a strong focus on strengthening the capacities of the Libyan authorities to intercept migrants hoping to reach Europe, on both their territory and in their territorial waters, and return them to Libya. In this context, I warn EU member states against a progressive ‘externalisation’ of border control. In particular, considering the on-going difficulties of the Libyan authorities and the reports of human rights abuses against migrants on Libyan territory, this migration cooperation with Libya should not lead to any migrant being returned to Libyan shores against their will, either by Italian coast guards or Guardia di Finanza, or by Libyan coast guards with the technical or logistical support of their Italian counterparts.”

While acknowledging the important support provided to Italy by Frontex, the Special Rapporteur expressed concern over certain Frontex activities in Italy:

“[  ] I am aware that the key focus of FRONTEX remains information and intelligence gathering. In Italy FRONTEX thus works predominantly with the Guarda di Finanza and the Border Police to combat irregular migration, migrant smuggling and other migration related crimes. I remain concerned that these security objectives still appear to overshadow human rights considerations. For example, I have learned that FRONTEX officers conduct interviews with migrants in Italian detention facilities in order to gather information on their journeys. However these interviews are conducted without any external supervision. It is thus essential that effective human rights standards be integrated into all departments and agencies related to border management.”

The Special Rapporteur made the following “Preliminary Recommendations to the Italian government”:

  • “Ensure that migration cooperation with Libya does not lead to any migrant being returned to Libyan shores against their will, either by Italian authorities, or by Libyan authorities with the technical or logistical support of their Italian counterparts.
  • Prohibit the practice of informal automatic “push-backs” to Greece.
  • Guarantee the full access by international organisations, including UNHCR and IOM, civil society organisations and lawyers to all areas where migrants are held or detained to identify protection concerns
  • Develop a nation-wide regulatory framework, with respect for human rights at its core, for the organisation and management of all migrant detention centres.
  • Develop a simpler and fairer appeal system for expulsion and detention orders that integrates human rights considerations at each procedural step.
  • Develop a speedier identification system, including commencing the identification of foreign inmates whilst in prison, in order to make sure that detention of migrants for identification purposes is limited to the shortest time possible, with a maximum of 6 months.”

Similar concerns were expressed by the Special Rapporteur after his missions to Tunisia and Turkey:

Tunisia, 8 June 2012: “… Nevertheless, I learned that a large majority of regional migration initiatives coming from the EU continue to be focused on issues of border control, and do not consider important issues such as the facilitation of regular migration channels. Thus I encourage the European authorities to develop, in the context of the Migration and Mobility Partnership currently being negotiated, and in conjunction with bilateral agreements of the Member States of the Union, a more nuanced policy of migration cooperation with Tunisia, which moves beyond security issues to develop new initiatives in consultation and in real partnership with Tunisian authorities, which place at their core the respect, protection and promotion of the human rights of migrants….”

Turkey, 29 June 2012:  “… While the EU and Turkey have developed a close cooperation on migration issues, which has led to some notable positive developments, the assistance offered to Turkey regarding migration management appears to focus largely on securitising the borders and decreasing irregular migration to the European common territory through focusing on projects related to the detention and removal of migrants in Turkey and the increased monitoring of the Turkish border. Often neglected from the equation, is an equivalent emphasis on the human rights of those most vulnerable and most affected by the migration process: the migrants themselves….”

The Special Rapporteur will likely issue preliminary observations at the conclusion of the current mission to Greece on or after 3 December.

Click here (Italy), here (Tunisia), and here (Turkey) for the Special Rapporteur’s statements.

Click here for the web site for the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.


Filed under Aegean Sea, European Union, Frontex, Greece, Human Rights Council, Italy, Libya, Mediterranean, News, Statements, Tunisia, Turkey, United Nations

Question Raised Whether Migrant Boat Sank Off Lampedusa Last Week

Italian authorities are questioning survivor reports that the boat on which they were sailing from Tunisia actually sank or capsized near Lampedusa on 7 September.  Authorities have raised the possibility that the survivors were intentionally landed on the small island of Lampione, approximately 20 km west of Lampedusa, by a trafficker’s “mother ship” and that the traffickers then returned to Tunisia.  Some of the 56 survivors who were rescued from Lampione reported that their boat sank and they were forced to swim to the island, but Italian authorities have not yet found sufficient debris, bodies, or other evidence that would indicate that their boat sank.  While two bodies have been recovered recently, the locations of the recovered bodies are not consistent with the location where the migrant boat is reported to have sunk.  Authorities think the two bodies may be from different incidents that may have taken place recently.

Click here, here, here, and here for articles. (IT)

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Filed under Italy, Mediterranean, News, Tunisia