‘EU breaking international law’ as Malta hosts drone surveillance sharing coordinates with Libya

The European Union is accused of breaking international law by Frontex conducting aerial surveillance hosted in a hangar at Luqa airport that is sharing information on migrant boat locations with Libya.

Using that information, Libya is, in turn, pulling would-be asylum seekers back to Libya where they face the almost certain prospects of detention, degrading treatment and torture.

Speaking with The Shift on Friday, German MEP Özlem Demirel (The Left) – who had sounded the first alarm bell over a year and a half ago through a series of European Parliamentary Questions for the European Commission, accused the EU of “breaking international law” and “demonstrating a severe lack of “humanitarian values and its external borders”.

A drone registered and operated out of Malta by a private company, as well as a number of airplanes, on behalf of the European Union’s border control agency Frontex were implicated in human rights abuses by analysis of flight patterns published by Human Rights Watch earlier this week.

The drone, as well as five airplanes 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 pullback 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.”

But Frontex, Demirel stresses, “is not allowed to send information about refugees in distress directly to the so-called Libyan coast guards, but must do so via an internationally recognised sea rescue coordination centre”.

“The EU and its agency, Frontex, are sending fewer and fewer ships to the Mediterranean, on purpose,” she told The Shift.

“On the other hand, they are setting up an air service, which is providing de facto aerial reconnaissance for Libya in order to prevent refugees from reaching Europe. The EU is accepting and tolerating that they are then tortured in Libyan detention camps.”

Photo: Human Rights Watch

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 airplanes 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.

“The EU congratulates itself on its supposedly values-based foreign policy,” the MEP said. “But refugees in Libya see a very different side of the EU. Without EU’s financial and material support, the so-called Libyan coast guards, which are mainly made up of militias, would not exist.”

German MEP Özlem Demirel

She notes how the EU has paid €54 million for migration “management” in Libya, and a Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre (MRCC), which is meant to be financed through those funds, but the money still does not seem to exist, according to the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, it is not yet “operational”.

“Where did the millions for this go?” Demirel questioned. “This must be clarified.”

The alleged MRCC or, rather, the lack thereof, “is of elementary importance for Libya’s role as gatekeeper of Fortress Europe,” she added.

Matters at the EU external borders have degenerated to such an extent that the MEP has lent her support to the ‘Abolish Frontex’ initiative that is seeking the withdrawal of the Nobel Peace Prize Frontex was awarded in 2012.

The initiative has been running since 10 December and closes tomorrow (Sunday 18 December) – right in between International Human Rights Day and International Migrants Day – and is a week of action aimed at stripping the EU of the coveted prize.

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

Photo: Human Rights Watch

The reason behind the initiative, according to its organisers, is that, “Frontex operations at sea turned the Mediterranean into the world’s deadliest border, through surveillance, incarceration and deportations of those who have made it across the border, or through payments given to third countries that torture and kill people on the EU’s behalf – Europe’s history of racism, colonialism, exploitation and violence continues uninterrupted until today.”


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