European states have the obligation under maritime international law to rescue people in distress at sea. For many years, civil society, international organisations, and citizens have demanded Europe complies with this obligation and mobilises the necessary resources to prevent people from drowning.
Yet these calls have invariably been met with disdain from the EU and its Member States, which instead have invariably chosen to focus on increased border policing.
Research published today by FragDenStaat and sea rescue organisation Sea-Watch reveals how, on the one hand, the choice not to deploy the necessary resources to save lives at sea has caused the death of thousands of people. On the other hand, by relentlessly reinforcing its border policing, including through dangerous partnerships, the EU’s border policies have only increased the lethality of the Mediterranean route to Europe.
The role of EU border force Frontex has become paramount to this deadly policy dynamic. While the border police force claims that search and rescue is a “crucial component” of their sea operations, the reality is that Frontex has, throughout the years, worked to render its own search and rescue capabilities useless.
The most blatant example of this is the agency’s prioritisation of air surveillance and disregard for sea presence. Since 2015, Frontex has invested € 100 million in expanding its own aerial capabilities, while investing € 0 in maritime resources.
Frontex presence in the air instead of at sea means that the agency can spot boats in distress from its aircrafts, but is not able to send ships to conduct a rescue operation. The consequences, as should be expected, are deadly.
Borders over lives as policing comes first
During the past 15 years, the EU has devoted unlimited resources into the creation and expansion of its border giant Frontex, currently the EU’s largest agency with a € 5.6 billion budget. Over that same 15-year period, the Mediterranean Sea became, and still is, the world’s deadliest migration route.
These are two events – the growth of Frontex and an ever-mounting number of deaths at sea – that must be read as one: a political choice being made and carefully planned by the EU and its Member States, to protect borders over lives.
In 2016, as a pretense to avoid investing the resources needed to ensure safety at sea, the EU declared its obligation to rescue people would be met by law enforcement actors at sea, specifically Frontex. The EU’s border force could be trusted with rescue, the European Commission argued.
However since 2015, over 18,709 people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, offering tragic proof that border policing is, by default and by design, incompatible with search and rescue.
The time for the EU to come to terms with this reality is now long overdue. Effective action to prevent further loss of lives at sea is urgently needed.
Defund and divest: towards a European Search and Rescue Programme
Today, we join the demand to defund border police force Frontex, and divest those valuable resources into a life-saving Search and Rescue Programme for the Mediterranean.
Only by dismantling the structures that have caused – and continue to cause – violence and death at sea, we can start creating safety for all. In their place, we must build new systems and structures that preserve and protect life at sea.
The fundamental right to life is non-negotiable, and so must be the creation of a European Search and Rescue Programme. A body with one mission only: to guarantee safety at sea, and to preserve the lives of those in danger; public-led, and run and operated by non-military, non-law enforcement actors only.
Research shows the creation of such a programme would require merely one third of the budget the EU now grants to Frontex’s border operations.
A political choice must therefore be made to protect lives at sea. For this purpose, Frontex cannot and will not guarantee safety. Its resources, however, can.
List of signatures
The campaign “Defund Frontex – Build a European Search and Rescue programme” is supported by:
• ARGOS – International Observatory for Migration and Human Rights
• ASGI – The Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration
• Baobab Experience
• Border Violence Monitoring Network
• Borderline Europe – Menschenrechte ohne Grenzen e.V.
• Borderline Sicilia
• HuBB – Humans Before Borders
• Leave No One Behind
• Mare Liberum e.V.
• Mediterranea Saving Humans
• M.V. Louise Michel
• Open Arms
• Resqship e.V.
• Sächsischer Flüchtlingsrat e.V
• Sarah – Search And Rescue for All Humans
• Sea-Eye e.V.
• Sea-Watch e.V.
• SMH – Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario
• Watch The Med Alarm Phone