As one of the main surveillance actors in the Central Mediterranean, EU border police force Frontex holds the crucial role of coordinating rescue operations at sea.
Who Frontex chooses to call to assign a rescue mission is a decision that will either save people’s lives or gravely endanger them. It’s a choice that can also make Frontex complicit in human rights violations.
This is the case when the actor Frontex chooses to cooperate with is the so-called Libyan Coast Guard; a violent, EU-funded force that does not rescue the people in distress, but instead forces them back into unsafe Libya.
The nature and extent of Frontex’s cooperation with the so-called Libyan Coast Guard is a secret well kept by the border agency, who refuses to release information about it.
In order to challenge Frontex’s secrecy, Sea-Watch, in cooperation with FragDenStaat, is taking Frontex to court.
On 30 July 2021, the Sea-Watch aircraft Seabird and rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 witnessed and documented a pullback - a human rights violation - in the Central Mediterranean.
A boat with around 20 people on board had managed to make its way from the coast of Libya into international waters. The Sea-Watch 3 vessel was in the vicinity, ready and willing to conduct a rescue mission and bring the people to safety, in Europe.
Instead, a violation of international law took place. The boat in distress was intercepted by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard and, far from being brought to a place of safety, the 20 people on board were forced back into Libya. There they face detention conditions that have been described by German diplomats as “concentration camp-like”.
Who alerted the so-called Libyan Coast Guard? Why was this dangerous actor prioritised over a rescue carried out by the Sea-Watch 3? That remains a secret well guarded by Frontex. Frontex is also the likely answer to those questions; the agency’s drone was seen orbiting the boat in distress three times before the Libyans arrived on site.
In order to be able to prove Frontex’s involvement in the 30 July pullback, Sea-Watch filed a Freedom of information (FOI) request to Frontex. The EU border police confirmed it holds 73 documents - including footage, videos and numerous correspondence - regarding its role in the incident. Frontex refused access to all of them.
Now Sea-Watch, in cooperation with FragDenStaat, is challenging Frontex’s secrecy before the General Court of the European Union, where we will fight for disclosure of the evidence Frontex is withholding.
Frontex’s most effective shield against accountability: secrecy
For years, Frontex has used secrecy to protect itself from having to face the consequences of its actions - something that is especially true when it comes to the agency’s operations and its complicity in human rights violations.
In 2020 and 2021 alone, there were over 50 reports of Frontex involvement in pushbacks at sea and land; pullbacks in the Central Mediterranean; and cases of non-assistance where people in distress were left to die at sea.
For many of these cases - due to Frontex’s internal reporting system - the border agency holds documents that detail the course of events: what happened, who was involved, and ultimately, who holds the responsibility. These documents are reports, evaluations of the incident, correspondence, recordings and footage… All of which, Frontex fiercely shields from public and political scrutiny. Frontex, in fact, denies access to over 90% of all requests of access to documents it holds.
Frontex has so far faced the court once over its secrecy in a lawsuit brought by FragDenStaat in 2018. Unfortunately on that occasion the EU court sided with Frontex, who was allowed to refuse information about its operations.
This systematic denial of information protects Frontex from scrutiny, and therefore shields the agency from any effort to hold it accountable. As a result, Frontex grows stronger as it operates with total impunity, at the cost of lives of innocent people.
The EU court must now decide whether Frontex can continue this dangerous course, or whether we have a right to information about the EU’s life-depriving actions in the Central Mediterranean.