Frontex drone and planes out of Malta ‘complicit in human rights abuses’

Aerial surveillance out of Malta ‘is for interceptions, not rescues’ and plays ‘key role’ in pushing back thousands of would-be asylum seekers to abuse in Libya, Human Rights Watch finds


A drone registered and operated out of Malta by a private company on behalf of the European Union’s border control agency Frontex has been implicated in human rights abuses, according to an in-depth multimedia analysis published by Human Rights Watch on Monday.

The drone, as well as five aeroplanes being run out of Malta and, to a far lesser extent, Sicily, have been found to be relaying information on migrant boats leaving Libya to the Libyan authorities.

Libya then carries out pushback operations (on behalf of European countries) where irregular migrants heading for Europe are returned to Libyan detention camps where they are routinely tortured.

An analysis published by the humanitarian organisation shows, “How the agency [Frontex] uses aerial surveillance demonstrates that it is in service of interceptions, not rescues.

“Without the information from EU aircraft, the Libyan Coast Guard would not have the technical and operational means to intercept these boats on such a scale.”

Frontex should put in place adequate measures to fulfil its obligation to assess whether its activities, including aerial surveillance, violate fundamental rights. This should include being more transparent and accountable about its operations.

With the drone operations in 2021, the absolute lion’s share of surveillance flights took off from Malta International Airport. In all, there are five aeroplanes and a single drone being used for the highly-questionable operation.

Since 2021, more than 32,400 people Libyan forces captured at sea have been forced back to Libya. The analysis reveals that almost one-third of these interceptions were facilitated by intelligence gathered by Frontex through aerial surveillance.

More than 20,700 people had been forced back this year up to November.

Operated by Airbus subsidiary ADAS the drone is piloted from a dedicated ground-control station set up at the Luqa airport’s military wing shortly before it started operating in May 2021.

Photo: Human Rights Watch

The drone transmits a near-live video feed and other information captured through a wide range of optical and thermal sensors to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw, where data is analysed and operational decisions affecting its flight path are taken and fed back to Malta in a constant feedback loop.

One plane, a Diamond DA62, is registered in Malta, as is the drone, an IAI Heron.

Two of the planes are UK-registered, and the other two are registered in Guernsey. All of them have been flying out of Malta regularly and on multiple occasions since last year.

“The use by the EU’s border agency, Frontex, of aerial surveillance to enable the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept migrant boats, knowing that migrants and asylum seekers will face systematic and widespread abuse when forcibly returned to Libya, makes Frontex complicit in the abuse,” Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics said on Monday when publishing the research.

“As long as Frontex operations are designed to enable interceptions by Libyan forces, the border agency and the EU should be held accountable for their role in the abuses suffered by people returned to Libya,” the organisations said.

Using data analysis and survivor testimony, the research, Airborne Complicity: Frontex Aerial Surveillance Enables Abuse, documents the role that Frontex-chartered aircraft – several planes and a drone mainly being flown out of Malta – play “in detecting migrants’ boats in the central Mediterranean and their subsequent interception by Libyan forces”.

A Libyan Coast Guard patrol boat Ras Jadir intercepts a wooden boat in the Mediterranean on 30 July 2021. © 2021 David Lohmüller/Sea-Watch

“By alerting Libyan authorities about boats carrying migrants, knowing those migrants will be returned to atrocious treatment, and despite having other options, Frontex is complicit in the abuse,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Frontex’s rhetoric around saving lives remains tragically empty as long as the border agency doesn’t use the technology and information at its disposal to ensure that people are rescued promptly and can disembark at safe ports.”

The data analysis supports the conclusion that the EU border agency’s approach is designed “not to rescue people in distress but to prevent them from reaching EU territory,” the organisations said.

They explain how statistics indicate Frontex’s use of aerial assets under its current strategy “has not had a meaningful impact on the death rate.

“However, there is a moderate and statistically significant correlation between its asset flights and the number of interceptions performed by the Libyan Coast Guard. On days when the assets fly more hours over its area of operation, the Libyan Coast Guard tends to intercept more vessels.”

Human Rights Watch referred to the 29 November complaint filed before the International Criminal Court by the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), claiming European responsibility for crimes against humanity committed against migrants and refugees in Libya.

It specifically named former prime minister Joseph Muscat and current Prime Minister Robert Abela for their “individual criminal responsibility” for the pushbacks of irregular migrants to Libya and the consequences of those pushbacks.

Border Forensics and Human Rights Watch reconstructed the events of 30 July 2021, when the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted several boats carrying migrants.

This was done by cross-referencing official and open-source data, including drone and plane flight tracks, together with information from Sea-Watch, a civilian rescue organisation with a ship in the water and a plane in the air that day, Alarm Phone, a hotline for migrants in distress at sea, and the testimony of survivors.

Photo: Human Rights Watch

Frontex uses a remotely operated, unarmed Heron drone designed for intelligence gathering and surveillance because it can fly for long hours off the Libyan coast.

That drone is operated from Malta and is also registered in Malta

The organisation reports that the drone’s tracks that day indicate it most likely detected at least two boats later intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard. The rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 witnessed by chance the interception of one of them and it says it had not received any distress alert from Frontex.

“The failure to inform rescue organisations about boats in distress or to issue mayday alerts to all vessels in the area illustrates Frontex’s willfully narrow interpretation of distress,” the organisations said.

They point out how doing so only in cases where there is risk of imminent loss of life “conflicts with relevant maritime law and the EU regulation on maritime border surveillance, as well as consensus views from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees”.

According to Frontex, it has issued 21 mayday alerts in the central Mediterranean between January 2020 and April 2022, but, according to the analysis, this represents only a tiny fraction of the boats sighted by its aerial surveillance.

Frontex also says there were 433 detections by aerial surveillance in the central Mediterranean in 2021 alone but in that year alone, Frontex was found to have facilitated Libyan Coast Guard operations that resulted in the forced return of approximately 10,000 people: almost one-third of the more than 32,000 people disembarked in Libya.

Frontex’s lack of transparency makes it difficult to verify the facts and impedes accountability, the organisations said.

They said that in processing 27 of 30 freedom of information requests, three are still pending, Frontex identified thousands of relevant documents but released only 86 of them. Many were heavily redacted.

“Faced with Frontex’s fundamental opacity, we have analysed a vast set of flight tracking and other data to reconstruct its activities in the sky,” said Giovanna Reder, Border Forensics’ lead investigator on this project.

“On July 30, 2021, alone, our analysis strongly suggests that the Frontex drone played a key role in returning potentially hundreds of people to abuse. The border agency and EU member states should be held accountable for this.”

In the meantime, the organisations said Frontex, with support from the EU and all member states, “should use aerial surveillance to support meaningful rescue at sea and to prevent the risk that people will be taken to Libya”.

“Frontex, Italy, and Malta should alert all vessels in the vicinity of a boat in need of assistance, based on a broad definition of distress that considers all overcrowded, unseaworthy boats in open waters to be in peril.”

They demand that Frontex and member states “deploy their own ships in areas where they deploy aircraft so they can respond directly and quickly to situations of distress, and they should stop harassing nongovernmental groups that are doing that.

“Unless called away by other emergencies, planes and drones being used for surveillance should remain at the scene when they detect boats to monitor their situation and document rescue or interception operations.”


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Justin Spiteri
Justin Spiteri
1 month ago

Last month the human population has reached the 8th billion milestone. Africa has overtaken the Asian continent as the main contributor to global population increase. What are supposed to do as European continent? Allow all economic migrants to reach out shores as they like? Currently European nations are battling their own internal issues such as high inflation and spiralling energy prices with no end in sight. More effort needs to be done in helping African nations to build their economies and make sure that wealth is distributed to the general population but we cannot welcome everyone who just wants to make himself home here.

Ġwanni Fenek
Ġwanni Fenek
1 month ago
Reply to  Justin Spiteri

Agreed. Though the solution ought to never be allowing people to drown or sending them to countries that are known to subject them to torture. To do so is simply inhumane.

1 month ago

Who knows why that French Plane was blown up?

Joseph Tabone Adami
Joseph Tabone Adami
1 month ago

“More needs to be done ……….to ensure that wealth is distributed to the general population”

The impression I get when seeing how the ruling military in most African countries enjoys a very high standard of opulence is that whatever wealth is generated in those countries – be it through sale of raw materials such as oil and diamonds to cite examples – hardly touches anyone but those in authority and their retinues.

I have my doubts, besides, as to how – and how much – direct foreign aid for education, health and development in those countries does in fact reach those towards whom it is intended by the donating countries.

1 month ago

The surveillance system is not designed for rescue purposes but should be utilised in prevention.

Andrew Mallia
Andrew Mallia
1 month ago

It’s worth noting that the Heron UAS is not just registered in Malta. It carries a military registration which means that it operates directly on behalf of the Republic of Malta. Given that the government was stupid enough to allow this arrangement, it has now also taken on any and all liability associated with the operation of this aircraft.

Vincent Attard
Vincent Attard
1 month ago

Instead of wasting all this energy and money on this, you can invest your energy and this money to find or acquire land (which is very cheap in Africa) for these poor people, use it as a safe haven in Africa where they can stay. Whist you take care of them and feed them as it is very easy to criticise and point fingers wanting others to do it for you, whilst at the same time you are doing nothing productive except trying to push them forward.

1 month ago
Reply to  Vincent Attard

You are right. Africa is such an enormous continent, there should be reservations for those wanting to better their lives. They can be helped by other countries. Agreements could be reached with the opulent ones. As you say land is cheap, and given the necessary equipment and teaching, could help these poor families. ( It could serve as an investment, with a board consisting of these investors). The locals can raise cattle, work land, plant fruit trees for exportation and so much more. These reservations could be the breeding ground for education, health care, builders farmers and so forth. It’s no use just sitting on a chair and debate. It’s pull up the sleeve and work, to give others the incentive to work for their families.

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