Over the past 15 years, border police force Frontex has grown to become the EU’s most powerful agency. With a budget of € 5.6 billion and an army of 10,000 border guards due by 2027, Frontex is the key actor in implementing – as well as advancing – Fortress Europe’s deadly policies.
During this 15-year period, in which the EU decided to devote unlimited resources into the creation and expansion of its border giant, the Mediterranean Sea became, and currently remains, the world’s deadliest migration route.
These are two events – the growth of Frontex and an ever-mounting number of deaths at sea – that must be read as one: a political choice being made and carefully planned by the EU and its Member States, to protect borders over lives.
Rescuing lives at sea: a legal obligation long ignored
European states have the obligation under maritime international law to rescue people in distress at sea. For many years, civil society, international organisations, and citizens have demanded Europe complies with this obligation and mobilises the necessary resources to prevent people from drowning.
Yet these calls have invariably been met with disdain from the EU and its Member States, which instead have invariably chosen to focus on increased border policing.
Research published today reveals how, on the one hand, the choice not to deploy the necessary resources to save lives at sea has caused the death of thousands of people. On the other hand, by relentlessly reinforcing its border policing, including through dangerous partnerships, the EU’s border policies have only increased the lethality of the Mediterranean route to Europe.
The role of Frontex has become paramount to this deadly policy dynamic. While the border police force claims that search and rescue is a “crucial component” of their sea operations, the reality is that Frontex has, throughout the years, worked to render its own search and rescue capabilities useless.
The most blatant example of this is the agency’s prioritisation of air surveillance and disregard for sea presence. Since 2015, Frontex has invested almost € 200 million in expanding its own aerial capabilities, while investing € 0 in maritime resources.
Frontex presence in the air instead of at sea means that the agency can spot boats in distress from its aircrafts, but is not able to send ships to conduct a rescue operation. The consequences, as should be expected, are deadly.
Defund and divest: towards a European Search and Rescue Programme
In 2016, as a pretense to avoid investing the resources needed to ensure safety at sea, the EU declared its obligation to rescue people would be met by law enforcement actors at sea, specifically Frontex. The EU’s border force could be trusted with rescue, the European Commission argued.
Since 2015, however, over 18,709 people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, offering tragic proof that border policing is, by default and by design, incompatible with search and rescue.
The time for the EU to come to terms with this reality is now long overdue. Effective action to prevent further loss of lives at sea is urgently needed.
Today, we are calling to defund border police force Frontex, and divest those valuable resources into a life-saving Search and Rescue Programme for the Mediterranean.
Only by dismantling the structures that have caused – and continue to cause – violence and death at sea, we can start creating safety for all. In their place, we must build new systems and structures that preserve and protect life at sea.
The fundamental right to life is non-negotiable, and so must be the creation of a European Search and Rescue Programme. A body with one mission only: to guarantee safety at sea, and to preserve the lives of those in danger; public-led, and run and operated by non-military, non-law enforcement actors only.
Research published today shows the creation of such a programme would require merely one third of the budget the EU now grants to Frontex’s border operations.
A political choice must therefore be made to protect lives at sea. For this purpose, Frontex cannot and will not guarantee safety. Its resources, however, can.
Safety beyond rescue
Saving lives in distress at sea is a legal obligation that the EU must immediately comply with – but measures to ensure safety and justice for all must go beyond rescue.
Creating safey must mean that those who are rescued are brought to a place of safety, which unequivocally lies on European soil. Everyone must be able to remain and live in freedom wherever they choose to, and should never face further violence such as detention or deportation.
Finally, in parallel to rescue efforts, other measures must be taken immediately to ensure people never actually have to risk their lives at sea. This must mean creating safe routes for those wishing to establish a life in Europe.
Ensuring and protecting everyone’s right to life starts by building a public, European-wide search and rescue programme. Yet the only way to fully achieve this is by abolishing the EU border regime as a whole.