The European border agency, Frontex, gave away the location of migrant boats to the Libyan coast guard hundreds of times, leaked documents have revealed. Despite having witnessed them shooting at boats and beating migrants who had fled Libya, found journalists.

The German magazine Spiegel and Lighthouse Reports, a public interest journalism project based in the Netherlands, have published damning allegations against the EU border and coast guard agency, Frontex.

The media organizations say they have evidence that between 2021 and 2023, Frontex shared the coordinates of migrant boats in the Mediterranean with Libyan officials more than 2,000 times, while it knew the Libyans were physically assaulting the migrants.

One incident detailed in internal documents seen by Spiegel and Lighthouse Reports happened on May 28, 2023, when a Frontex surveillance aircraft witnessed a Libyan coast guard vessel intercepting a boat carrying about 100 migrants. Frontex observed how the Libyans pursued the migrant boat and then hit some of those on board with batons and ropes. Finally, the migrants were rounded up and taken back to shore.

Reports reveal that the attack was no exception. The Libyan coast guard was observed by Frontex on many other occasions hitting, kicking and shooting at migrants intercepted in the Mediterranean, before returning them to Libya.

It is also not the first time that Frontex has come under attack over its cooperation with the Libyan coast guard. “The agency is part of a system created by the EU in order to keep as many migrants out as possible,” write Bashar Deeb and Steffen Lüdke, authors of the Spiegel report.

As they also note, Libya is not a safe country for migrants to be returned to, a fact confirmed in a landmark case more than a decade ago in the European Court of Human Rights. Migrants who are sent back there are held in detention centers, where they report rape and torture. Most are released only after their families have paid thousands of dollars in ransom.

The EU discontinued its own coordinated rescue efforts in the Mediterranean years ago, instead providing training and sending boats and equipment to the Libyan coast guard. Even with extensive support from the EU, however, the Libyan authorities on their own would have been unable to locate migrant boats, according to Spiegel. They relied on Frontex to send the coordinates of boats to the sea rescue contol centers in the region, which in turn notified the coast guard.

Frontex told Spiegel that it shared the information “with a heavy heart”. The agency said it was aware of the conditions the migrants had to endure in Libya, but it was obliged under international law to notify all responsible rescue command centers when there was an emergency at sea. Its first priority was to save lives, Frontex told the journalists.

Reports by Frontex’ human rights officer, Jonas Grimheden, reflect a dilemma confronting the agency, Spiegel reports. If the position of migrants boats had not been supplied to all responsible Libyan authorities, it is possible that the coast guard would have carried out very few rescues, it notes. Other countries’ coast guard authorities – notably those in Malta – have increasingly tended to ignore distress calls, and the Libyans have since become responsible for emergencies in the Maltese search and rescue zone, it adds.

However, Grimheden himself points out that the EU agency is obliged under its own rules to ensure that no asylum seeker is returned to an unsafe country. That puts Frontex at risk of “indirect participation in pushback practices,” Spiegel quotes him as saying.

Grimheden says Frontex should only send coordinates to Tripoli in future if at the same time the UN agencies UNHCR and IOM are asked to make sure that the migrants are not placed in detention camps. He also wants Frontex to push EU member states to step up rescue activities close to the Libyan search and rescue zone, and to caution the Libyans if they use violence.

In what Spiegel calls his “most explosive” idea, Grimheden urges the EU border agency to share the coordinates of migrant boats in the Libyan rescue zone with private sea rescue organizations. Frontex, which is under the mandate of the European Commission and the EU member states, is unlikely to support NGOs whose boats are regularly impounded under Italian law, the magazine says.

When questioned by Spiegel, Frontex said all ships in the vicinity of a boat in distress received a Mayday alert in life-threatening situations. It did not comment further on which of Grimheden’s recommendations had been implemented.


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