European Ombudsman: Frontex’s operation is inadequate, too dependent on the good will of EU member states

The European border agency Frontex must withdraw from countries that are not committed to rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean. Emily O’Reilly, the European Ombudsman, orders in a report on Wednesday which reveal the shortcomings of the EU agency. Without fundamental changes, she says, the European Union risks becoming “complicit” in the many deaths that have occurred in the Mediterranean in recent years as a result of shipwrecks.

According to the Ombudsman, tension has arisen between Frontex’s obligations to guarantee the fundamental rights of migrants and its duty to support Member States in border management. O’Reilly’s findings follow an investigation launched last summer following the Adriana boat disaster off the Greek coast in June 2023, in which at least 600 people died.

‘Mandate falls short’

The Ombudsman notes, among other things, that Frontex is too dependent on the 27 EU member states for its operations at sea. This limits the agency’s ability to act independently. In addition, the Ombudsman deplores the “lack of internal guidelines” within the EU coast guard for issuing so-called Mayday calls, an international procedure to warn of life-threatening emergencies. This did not happen after the sinking of the Adriana. O’Reilly wants the European Union to amend the agency’s statutes so that the coast guard can operate more independently.

Current European regulations prevented Frontex from playing a more active role in the rescue of those on board the Adriana. Without permission from Greek authorities, Frontex vessels could not reach the site of the boat disaster. Frontex is said to have asked for help four times, but received no response. Later, Greek authorities reportedly did not respond to an offer from the agency to send an additional plane to the disaster area. The Ombudsman has serious doubts about the lack of assistance provided during the disaster. “Frontex’s current mandate and mission are clearly inadequate,” she said. “If Frontex has a duty to help save lives at sea, but the tools to do so are lacking, then this is clearly a matter for the EU legislators.”