On Guard

The European Union’s border agency comes under fire

Migrants arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos in a dinghy accompanied by a Frontex vessel. Frontex faces many allegations of either committing or overlooking serious misconduct, including human-rights violations. Michael Varaklas/AP Photo
Elections 2024
06 December, 2021

Around 5 pm on 4 February, roughly a hundred and fifteen kilometres north of Libya, a white reconnaissance plane with a camera on its underside circled a raft carrying a hundred desperate migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. The surveillance footage from the airplane’s camera was transmitted live to an office in Warsaw, Poland, at the headquarters of the European Union’s border-patrol agency, Frontex.

Two hours later, thanks to this surveillance footage, a Libyan coast-guard cutter caught up with the migrants and ordered them to stop, even though they were well outside of Libyan waters. Armed officers took the migrants on board, beat them savagely and carried them back to the one place they did not want to go: Libya’s gulag-like detention centres.

Efficient and brutal, the at-sea capture and on-land internment of these migrants is what EU officials hail as part of a successful partnership with Libya in their “humanitarian rescue” efforts across the Mediterranean. For many, though, the true intent of this joint campaign is less to save migrants from drowning than to stop them from reaching European shores.

Since the migrant crisis started in 2015 and hundreds of thousands of people began crossing the Mediterranean Sea, European officials have relied heavily on the Libyans to stem the flow. Not only did the EU equip and train the Libyan coast guard, it also lobbied the United Nations’ maritime organisation to recognise an enlarged search-and-rescue zone so that the Libyans could have wider reach off their coast. The result of this collaboration has been a precipitous drop in the number of migrants reaching Europe: around twenty thousand migrants arrived in the first seven months of 2021, down from seventy thousand during the same period in 2016. Without the support of aerial reconnaissance from Frontex, the Libyan coast guard would, in effect, be searching with its eyes closed.