Airborne Complicity

Frontex Aerial Surveillance Enables Abuse

By Judith Sunderland and Lorenzo Pezzani

About half an hour after we left…we heard a drone over our head…it made a clear sound, Wzzzz Wzzzz … We were all afraid. Silence for the next several hours. Around noon … we saw the drone … it stayed there about five minutes, did a circle or two … Two hours later … a boat appeared: it was the Libyans.”

Abu Laila, 28, a Syrian, was by his calculation roughly 11 hours into his attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea to escape abuse in Libya and reach safety in Europe when Libyan forces intercepted the boat on July 30, 2021. The evidence we gathered over months of research suggests that the aircraft he saw was one used by European authorities to closely monitor the central Mediterranean and relay information about boats like his to Libyan authorities. After the boat was intercepted, he was taken back to Libya, detained, beaten, and forced to buy his freedom.

Abu Laila, whose real name, as with others, we are not using for his safety, was one of more than 32,400 people Libyan forces captured at sea and forced back to Libya in 2021. Our analysis reveals that almost one third of these interceptions were facilitated by intelligence gathered by the European Union border agency, Frontex, through aerial surveillance. More than 20,700 people had been forced back through November 2022.

Frontex emphasizes that drone and plane sightings can save lives. Given that a staggering number of people—at least 25,313 —have died in the Mediterranean since 2014, saving lives at sea should be the paramount goal. But our analysis of how the agency 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.

Over the last few years, Frontex has established contracts with private companies to operate a remote-piloted Heron drone—a relatively large, unarmed drone designed for intelligence gathering and surveillance—and several piloted planes out of airports in Malta and Italy.

Each of these aircraft monitors a specific area of the central Mediterranean. Together, their daily movements constitute a tightly knit, extensive web of aerial patrol.

This surveillance forms a central plank of the EU’s strategy to prevent migrants and asylum seekers from reaching Europe by boat despite knowing the consequences are that migrants will be returned to face systematic and widespread abuse in detention by Libyan authorities and smugglers in Libya. The strategy is an attempt by the EU to remove itself spatially, physically, and legally from its responsibilities. Ultimately though, by providing the information to Libyan authorities for the purpose of intercepting people escaping abuse in Libya, knowing that upon capture they will be returned to Libya to face arbitrary detention, violence, and exploitation, the EU is making itself complicit in the abuse.

Frontex operated six aircraft out of Italy and Malta in 2021

These flight tracks show an extensive web of aerial patrols


Asset: Diamond DA62

Registration: G-WKTH, United Kingdom


Asset: Diamond DA62

Registration: G-WKTI, United Kingdom


Asset: Beech 200T Super King Air

Registration: 2-WKTK, Guernsey


Asset: Beech Super King Air 350

Registration: 2-WKTJ, Guernsey


Asset: Diamond DA62

Registration: 9H-DGM, Malta


Asset: IAI Heron Drone

Registration: AS2132, Malta

Credit Border Forensics. Flight Information Region (FIR) is the area for which a country is responsible for providing basic levels of air traffic service.

One Day in the Central Mediterranean

July 30, 2021, was a busy day in the Mediterranean, fairly typical of the summer months, when weather and sea conditions favor crossings. The sea and skies were full. At least six boats were carrying migrants and refugees on the water, according to a Frontex database, but testimony and flight track analysis we collected suggest there were even more. From what we can tell, Abu Laila’s boat—a two-deck motorboat with about 80 people—and those of three other men we spoke with don’t appear in official interception logs. Three ships from nongovernmental organizations were patrolling in international waters off the Libyan coast: Sea-Watch 3 (SW3), operated by Sea-Watch ; the Ocean Viking, operated by SOS MEDITERRANEE; and the Nadir, operated by RESQSHIP. Numerous merchant vessels and supply ships were transiting the central Mediterranean.

The Sea-Watch 3, a rescue ship operated by the German NGO Sea-Watch, and members of its crew on a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat used to perform rescues, July 30, 2021. © Adrian Pourviseh
Members of the Sea-Watch crew on a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat used to perform rescues, July 30, 2021. © Adrian Pourviseh

Based on data from independent aerial tracking services, at least five planes and a drone were patrolling the skies that day. The Heron drone had been flying since early morning over the western part of the Libyan search-and-rescue area—its regular beat—while a piloted plane, which has been flying missions for both Frontex and the EU naval mission EUNAVFOR MED, was patrolling to the east of Malta and Misrata, Libya. Later in the day, an Italian Guardia di Finanza plane flew over the stretch of sea separating Tunisia from the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The Armed Forces of Malta also had two planes in the air, but their role, as well as that of other surveillance aircraft that regularly fly in the area, remains unclear as their flight tracks are not publicly available. The Seabird, flown by a group called Humanitarian Pilots Initiative in partnership with Sea-Watch, was also patrolling—the only civilian aircraft dedicated to spotting migrant boats in distress.

According to the flight tracks, the Frontex Heron drone was the first of these aircraft to take off from its base in Malta’s Luqa airport. Operated by ADAS, a subsidiary of Airbus, it is piloted from a dedicated ground-control station set up within the airport’s military wing shortly before it started operating in May 2021. 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 are analyzed and operational decisions affecting its flight path are taken and fed back to Malta in a constant feedback loop.

The drone ground station inside Malta airport.

The drone ground station inside Malta airport. The two antennas visible are probably used for drone-related telecommunication.

The Heron drone in front of its hangar at Malta International Airport.

The temporary hangar of the drone.

Drone operators push the drone inside its hangar.

Airbus drone operators push the drone inside its hangar.

An employee on the roof of one of the containers in the drone ground control station.

An Airbus drone operator checks one of the antennas probably used for drone-related telecommunications.

In the center, the Diamond DA62 (registration code 9H-DGM), one of the planes used by Frontex for aerial surveillance

In the background, the Diamond DA62 (registration code 9H-DGM), one of the planes used by Frontex for aerial surveillance.

On July 30, 2021, the Heron drone started heading south toward Libya at 01:55 GMT. Leaving at that time means if the drone spots migrants’ boats, which normally also leave during the night, they are more likely to still be close to Libya and more easily intercepted by Libyan forces. The drone remains in its operational area significantly longer than aircraft with on-board pilots.

While Frontex does not disclose operational details like flight plans, we know from our analysis of the drone’s flight tracks over several months that it follows a standard search pattern off the Libyan coast. Deviations from this pattern can indicate the drone is taking a closer look at something.

The Frontex drone began operating out of Malta in May 2021.

Frontex drone tracks

May 2021 – Jun 2022

The drone patrols the area west of Tripoli from where most migrant boats depart following a standard search pattern.

The introduction of the drone has allowed Frontex to exponentially increase its patrol time off the coasts of Libya.

Credit Border Forensics

On the day we analyzed the drone’s flight path, we can see the first clear deviation from its usual pattern at 05:20 GMT when the drone takes a sharp turn to fly west and then moves in a loop over the same location. Our analysis indicates this was likely because the drone spotted a small wooden fishing boat carrying approximately 20 men. The Libyan Coast Guard later intercepted the boat in an operation Sea-Watch witnessed.

At the time of this first probable sighting, the SW3 was busy with a rescue operation 30 nautical miles south of the location where the drone made its loop, after receiving an alert from Alarm Phone. After taking on board the 40 passengers, some of whom had severe fuel burns and symptoms of fuel exposure according to Sea-Watch, the SW3 made its way north.

At 07:05 GMT, the drone deviated again to take a sharp north-east turn back toward where it probably first sighted the small wooden boat, performing another loop at 08:00 GMT at a location consistent with where that boat would have been if it was continuing its northerly direction, as is probable.

Unaware of the presence of the small wooden fishing boat, the SW3 continued heading north to disembark its rescued passengers in Sicily. At 12:28 GMT, in international waters, it came in sight of Libyan Coast Guard patrol boat 648—the Ras Jadir, one of four patrol boats Italy returned to Libya in 2017 after refurbishing them—intercepting a boat with about 20 people on board, the SW3 crew said.

Footage shot from the Seabird plane shows the Ras Jadir chasing the small wooden boat as it motors away.

Ultimately, the Libyan Coast Guard launched a RHIB, a lightweight and fast inflatable boat, to capture the boat.

No one was given a lifejacket, and everyone was taken on board the Ras Jadir.

David Lohmüller and Adrian Pourviseh/Sea-Watch

An official EU document indicates that the Ras Jadir returned to the Tripoli Naval Base at 23:34 GMT with 85 people, having intercepted four boats carrying migrants. But none of the locations reported in the document appear to match where the wooden boat was intercepted.

Crucially, none of the nongovernmental rescue boats operating in the area that day received any alerts from Frontex or coastal authorities about the wooden boat. The tracks of oil tankers Superba and Inviken and the supply ship Belize show they were in the vicinity but none of them appear to have changed course, indicating they had not received any instructions to respond to a distress situation, which they would have been obliged to do under the law of the sea.

Frontex did not send out any mayday alerts that day or communicate in any way with nongovernmental rescue ships, in keeping with its stated policy. The agency says it “immediately alerts” national rescue centers in Italy, Malta, Libya, and Tunisia when they spot a “boat in distress” but only issues a mayday alert if there is an “emergency, where lives are at stake.” Between January 2020 and April 2022, Frontex says it issued 21 mayday alerts in the central Mediterranean, a tiny fraction of the boats sighted by its aerial surveillance. In 2021 alone, Frontex says there were 433 detections by aerial surveillance in the central Mediterranean involving 22,696 people.

Limiting communication about boats in distress to national rescue center is a deliberately narrow interpretation of when a mayday alert is warranted. It serves as a justification to alert Libyan authorities, even though the EU knows they are systematically returning people to abuse, and as an excuse not to alert nearby vessels, including nongovernmental ships, which would seek to take passengers to safe European ports.

The interaction between Ras Jadir and the wooden boat was in international waters, where Libyan authorities have no immigration enforcement authority, and within Malta’s search-and-rescue area. The failure of Frontex and member states to alert all vessels in the area, the way the Libyan Coast Guard patrol boat conducted the operation, and the fact that the wooden boat motored away all point to an interception whose sole purpose was to prevent those on board from reaching EU territory, and not a rescue.

According to data from a Frontex database obtained by the nongovernmental organization Frag den Staat, Frontex aircraft detected five boats on July 30, 2021. Libyan forces intercepted all of them and returned all those on board to Libya. A European Union External Action Service (EEAS) classified document that we reviewed also lists five interceptions that day, and although details do not match neatly, there is significant overlap.

One case appears across all sources—a rubber dinghy with approximately 120 people on board. Around 06:30 GMT, Alarm Phone had sent out an alert to the Italian and Maltese maritime rescue coordination centers, as well as to nongovernmental rescue groups, with the number for the satellite phone on the boat. In subsequent phone calls, it became clear the people on board had shut off the engine to conserve fuel and the boat was drifting near an offshore oil platform, 90 kilometers (55 miles) from the Libyan coast.

At 09:44 GMT, a man on the dinghy begged Alarm Phone for help, saying the Libyan Coast Guard had called them to ask for their position. It is possible the Italian and/or Maltese authorities gave the Libyans the satellite phone number—we can’t be sure because the Italian Coast Guard denied our request for information about their operations and communications that day, and the Armed Forces of Malta did not answer. The people on board put their remaining fuel in the engine and started moving again.

At 12:03 GMT the drone made a loop in a position consistent with where the boat would have been as it navigated north, and at 14:15 GMT, the Seabird, the Sea-Watch plane spotted an empty, deflated rubber boat in the area. Information we reviewed indicates the Libyan patrol boat Zuwara conducted an operation in that area involving a boat with 120 people.

The Libyan Coast Guard posted on Facebook about the operation, and Migrant Rescue Watch, a pro-Libyan Coast Guard Twitter account that reports on interceptions and disembarkations, tweeted photos of 121 people , including 10 women and 9 children, from the Zuwara patrol boat disembarking at Tripoli Naval Base. This matches the international Organization for Migration database record. Migrant Rescue Watch said that everyone was taken to a detention center.

Photo from Twitter
Part of a group of 121 people intercepted by the patrol boat Zuwara on July 30, 2021. Exact location at time of photo unclear. Taken from the @rgowans Twitter account.

We spoke with four men, including Abu Laila, who said that Libyan forces intercepted them that day, but none of them were on the rubber dinghy intercepted by the Zuwara or the other two boats we documented. The details they provided suggest they were on four additional boats that are not captured by any official interception logs. It is possible that these sources do not include operations by the General Administration for Coastal Security (GACS), under the Interior Ministry, and the Stability Support Apparatus under the Libyan Prime Minister’s office. We were unable to locate any survivors whose accounts placed them without a doubt on the wooden boat intercepted by the Ras Jadir or the rubber dinghy intercepted by the Zuwara.

The extreme distress Alarm Phone heard on the other end of the call with someone on the rubber dinghy echoes the panic of people on these journeys when they understand Libyan forces are approaching.

Tesfay, a 21-year-old man from Eritrea, was on a two-deck wooden boat—not Abu Laila’s—that day, with about 90 people on board, mostly Eritreans, Ethiopians, and Sudanese. He was on the lower deck, but others told him they saw a plane circling overhead at one point, after the sun was high in the sky. At some later point, a Libyan boat came. “People started to scream. I managed to get to the upper deck…I saw the Libyan ship approaching. People were desperate, three or four…tried to jump in the sea, but they were stopped,” he told us.

Dawit, 28, also from Eritrea, was on a rubber boat with his wife and their 7-year-old daughter. He said they saw an aircraft when the sun was high in the sky, and then later in the afternoon saw a ship approaching. “We didn’t know it was the Libyans until it close enough and we could see the flag. At that point we started to scream and cry. One tried to jump into the sea and we had to stop him. We fought off as much as we could to not be taken back, but we couldn’t do anything about it.”

In their distress, Tesfay and Dawit could not remember enough details about the boats for us to determine what branch intercepted their boats.

Libyan forces have a reputation for reckless and violent behavior at sea. All four men we spoke with said they or others were beaten once aboard the patrol boats that intercepted them. Robel said he was beaten so badly he lost consciousness: “They were hitting us … treating us like animals … they beat me with the rifle butts and also stomped on me with their shoes. They hit me every time I tried to stand up, they hit me on the side of my head.”

All four accounts present a pattern: the distant vision or sound of an aircraft in the sky, the subsequent arrival of Libyan forces by sea, and their return to detention and unspeakable abuse.

Because it can fly closer to the Libyan coast for a longer time, the drone is likely to have played a prominent role, but we need full transparency from Frontex to be certain about its role in these interceptions. All the interceptions logged in official documents for July 30, 2021, took place within the drone’s operational area and its tracks reveal a geometry of loops, U-turns, perfect circles, and sharp corners, all testifying to potential sightings.

The precise geographical coordinates for the five interceptions reported in the classified EEAS document seem to match at least three of these peculiar patterns. But many more exist, suggesting the drone might have been responsible for even more sightings and interceptions that day. What the evidence strongly suggests is that before landing back in Luqa airport just before 18:20 GMT, more than 14 hours after take-off, it played a key role in facilitating the interception of potentially hundreds of people.

At 01:55 GMT the Heron drone takes off from Malta and heads towards Libya.

The drone eventually lands back to its base at 18:20GMT.

Its track strongly suggests that it spotted at least two of the three boats for which we have been able to partly reconstruct their journeys.

None of the many other ships present in the area, including three rescue NGOs, was alerted to the presence of these boats.

We can see peculiar patterns in the drone’s track in the vicinity of at least three out of five interceptions reported in a classified European External Action Service document, indicating potential sightings.

Many more of these patterns in the drone track exist, suggesting that the latter might have been responsible for even more sightings and interceptions that day.

Credit Border Forensics

The Veil over Frontex Surveillance

Our investigation came up against Frontex’s lack of transparency. A request to visit the situation room in Warsaw, where life and death decisions are taken based on information gathered via aerial surveillance, was denied. A request to interview operational staff was denied. In processing 27 of 30 freedom of information requests submitted (the others are pending), Frontex identified 3,092 documents related to our inquiries. This may include some double-counting as the requests related to overlapping time periods. They gave us 86. Many, pertaining to operational plans and contracts with companies, were heavily redacted.

Thumbnails of Specific Activity Plan, Handbook to Operational Plan

Redacted operational plan obtained from Frontex via Freedom of Information request

Frontex refused our specific request for information about July 30, 2021, and turned down our appeal. Frontex identified 1,166 related to email correspondence between Frontex and the Libyan Coast Guard between January 2021 and August 2022, and identified 18 documents related to phone calls and text messages in the same period. Frontex denied us access to all those documents.


Refusal from Frontex Transparency Office to release copies of emails between Frontex and the Libyan Coast Guard

Frontex systematically denies access to documents it says contains information on operational matters, contending that it would hamper the agency’s effectiveness and undermine the public interest and that sharing operational details would benefit smugglers and other criminal networks “which would ultimately put the life of migrants in danger.”

EU regulations give cover to this secrecy, despite the fact that boat migration is an important social issue, features prominently in political debates, including in election campaigns, and despite the risk of EU complicity in serious violations of fundamental rights. Lack of transparency impedes independent oversight by the European Parliament, the Frontex Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights, and civil society.

Airborne Complicity

There is overwhelming evidence of brutality against migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Libya. Everyone intercepted at sea faces the prospect of arbitrary detention in horrific conditions by Libyan authorities if returned to Libya.

After their interception and return, the Eritrean men, along with Dawit’s wife and daughter, were detained in an old tobacco factory in the Ghout al-Shaal neighborhood that has been repurposed as a detention center (also known as the Kushar or Qushar center, and the al-Mabani center), nominally under government control. All of them described nightmarish conditions and repeated abuse by the guards.

Tesfay said he was beaten almost every day. “They used a hose pipe. It was random, they would hit me anywhere all over my body. They would beat us around mealtime.” They were held for between three weeks and two months and were only released after paying between US$900-$1,800 each. Abu Laila was most likely detained in the Al-Zawiyah detention center for a month, then bought his freedom for $2,000. “The beating was nonstop, continuous,” he said.

almabani-1 almabani-2

Photos and video taken by a detainee in al-Mabani detention center in October 2021. © Private

The UN Human Rights Council’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya concluded in June 2022 that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity are being committed against migrants in Libya,” including “murder, enforced disappearance, torture, enslavement, sexual violence, rape, and other inhumane acts … in connection with their arbitrary detention.” Noting the “ongoing, systematic and widespread character of these practices,” the mission pointed to evidence of cooperation between the Libyan Coast Guard and detention officials, armed groups, traffickers, smugglers, and “other individuals attempting to profit from this system.”

The EU is fully aware of abuse against migrants in Libya and doesn’t dispute the evidence. Back in 2017, then migration commissioner Dimitri Avramopoulos said , “We are all conscious of the appalling and degrading conditions in which some migrants are held in Libya.” In July 2022, the EU made a statement at the UN calling conditions in detention for asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees in Libya “deeply alarming.”

Jurisprudence from the European Court of Human Rights, which condemned Italy in 2012 for interdicting migrant boats and returning people to Libya, makes it clear that EU institutions and member states cannot send anyone back there safely. As a result, the EU has over the years built an infrastructure and adopted policies to ensure that Libyan actors are seen to do the dirty work.

Since 2015, the EU has allocated 700 million euros to “address the migration situation in the Central Mediterranean route.” This includes at least 87 million for border management, including support to the Libyan Coast Guard, under the Defense Ministry. With Italy in a leading role, the EU has trained, equipped, and coordinated Libyan forces to improve their capacity to prevent boats from reaching Europe. Italy helped Libya define and declare a “search-and-rescue region” that the International Maritime Organization, a specialized UN body, recognized in June 2018, as well as to set up what is by all accounts a still poorly functioning rescue coordination center.

At the same time, the EU has deliberately restricted its operational presence off the Libyan coast. In 2018, Frontex reduced its operational range from 70 to 24 nautical miles from the Italian coast. The EU’s naval operation EUNAVFORMED, which had rescued 45,000 people at sea, pulled all of its boats out of the water in March 2019, and reinstated naval patrols in March 2020 off Libya’s eastern coast , far from where people trying to flee Libya depart on overcrowded, unseaworthy boats.

Since 2018, the European Union has progressively withdrawn its ships from near the Libyan coast.

In February 2018, Frontex reduced the operational range of its missions from 70 to 24 nautical miles off the Italian coast.

In March 2019, the EU’s Naval Force Mediterranean withdrew its 7 ships from the central Mediterranean.

While 2 of them were reintroduced a year later, these were tasked with patrolling off the Eastern coast of Libya from where very few boats depart.

Over the same period, European authorities have been building up their aerial surveillance in the Central Mediterranean.

In March 2020, EUNAVFORMED started patrolling Libyan airspace, and its aerial fleet was extended from 3 to 6 aircraft.

In 2018 Frontex progressively introduced more and more surveillance aircraft, including the Heron drone in May 2021. Frontex more than doubled its flight time over the central Mediterranean, from 1,396 hours in 2018 to 2,869 hours in 2021.


The area where EU aircraft patrol corresponds precisely to the area where the vast majority of interceptions take place, according to data collected by EUNAVFORMED.

Credit Border Forensics. Flight Information Region (FIR) is the area for which a country is responsible for providing basic levels of air traffic service.

Starting in earnest in 2017, Italy and Malta have increasingly abdicated their responsibilities to coordinate and operate rescues at sea in favor of Libyan authorities and obstructed in myriad ways the work of nongovernmental rescue groups both at sea and in the air. Italy and Malta have initiated numerous criminal and administrative proceedings against rescue groups, blocked ships in port, ignored or refused requests to dock to allow rescued people ashore, and grounded these groups’ aircraft. In March 2022, Libya banned Sea-Watch aircraft, operated by Humanitarian Pilots, from flying over its search-and-rescue area, even though it has no authority to do so over the high seas. Since the beginning of 2017, more than 100,600 people have been intercepted and taken back to Libya.

At the same time, European authorities have been building up their presence in the skies. The renewed mandate assigned to EUNAVFORMED as of March 2020 under its new name, “Operation Irini,” extends its scope to “allow for use of aerial surveillance within Libyan airspace.” Most significantly, the proportion of naval and aerial assets participating in the operation was flipped, going from seven ships and three aircraft to two ships and six aircraft, including one drone. Frontex aerial surveillance has significantly expanded since it began in 2015. Over the past four years, Frontex aircraft more than doubled their flight time over the central Mediterranean, from 1,396 hours in the air in 2018 to 2,869 hours in 2021.

The shift from a limited sea presence to aerial surveillance is key to the overall EU strategy. Aerial surveillance allows the EU to monitor what is happening in the central Mediterranean while avoiding direct contact with migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees on the water, which would trigger duties under international law, including having to disembark them in a safe port in Europe.

Dressing up interceptions as rescues is part of this strategy. Former Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri said as recently as March 2021 that the agency did not cooperate directly with the Libyan Coast Guard. A month later, the investigative news organization Lighthouse Reports revealed “back channels between Frontex and the Libyan coast guard, including WhatsApp groups where coordinates of refugee boats are shared.” The agency now explains these communications as complying with international maritime law on rescue at sea, under which it claims to have an obligation to inform all relevant coastal states, including Libya. Airbus, which provides and operates the drone, told us its main mission is “to support search and rescue missions” and that information it gathers “is directly transmitted to the Frontex command and control centre as well as to centres of the respective Coast Guards.”

It’s hard to believe that the imperative to save lives is what’s really behind EU and Frontex policies, given the withdrawal of EU ships, the handover of responsibility to Libyan forces, and the obstruction of rescue NGOs. It’s also hard to reconcile a notion of rescue with migrant boats desperately trying to evade Libyan patrols, people jumping into open waters at the sight of the Libyan flag, and the violence, sometimes fatal, used by Libyan forces during these operations.

Obligations under maritime law don’t exist in a vacuum. People on overcrowded, unseaworthy boats fleeing persecution, violence, and hardship have rights under international human rights and refugee law that Frontex—and the EU as a whole—must respect. Enabling the Libyan Coast Guard to find these people at sea, knowing they will be taken back to detention and abuse, amounts to aiding and abetting human rights violations.

Companies like Airbus that have contracts with Frontex also have responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to ensure their activities don’t harm human rights; Airbus did not respond to questions about whether they undertook any due diligence on their contracts with Frontex.

Redacted contract page Redacted contract page Redacted contract page Redacted contract page Redacted contract page Redacted contract page Redacted contract page Redacted contract page Redacted contract page Redacted contract page Redacted contract page Redacted contract page Redacted contract page Redacted contract page Redacted contract page

Redacted copies of Frontex contracts with Airbus

Frontex has a Fundamental Rights Action Plan, and since September 2021, fundamental rights monitors have been in the situation center in Warsaw where decisions are made by Frontex operational staff. Through the end of 2021, five “serious incident reports” were made about incidents in the central Mediterranean, and the Fundamental Rights Officer (FRO) told us there is a “similar frequency” of these reports in 2022. The FRO has issued guidance on aerial surveillance and has a practice of recommending measures to mitigate human rights violations, though these are not yet public. Frontex told Human Rights Watch that the FRO briefs surveillance aircraft crew on fundamental rights, but the agency does not provide any other training to pilots. Such steps are no defense to evidence of EU complicity in returning people to abuse in Libya.

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

Aerial surveillance contributes directly and meaningfully to interceptions of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees at sea. Our statistical analysis supports the conclusion that the EU’s approach is designed not to rescue people in distress but to prevent them reaching EU territory. The statistics indicate that 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 aerial 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.

Frontex aerial assets flight hours within their operational area based on flight tracking data from ADSB Exchange
Number of Interceptions based on data in a European Union External Action Service (EEAS) classified document
Credit Border Forensics

The EU should fundamentally re-orient its migration policy to enable safe and legal pathways and reset its activities in the central Mediterranean and cooperation with Libyan authorities to make sure people are not returned to places where they face abuse. Frontex should implement effective measures to fulfill its obligation to assess whether its activities, including aerial surveillance, violate fundamental rights. This should include being more transparent and accountable about its operations.

In the meantime, there are immediate, concrete steps Frontex and EU countries can take to use aerial surveillance in genuine service of rescue. The agency, 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 should 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 non-governmental 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. Taken together, this could help save lives and prevent the tremendous suffering experienced by those who are forced back to abuse in Libya.

The last time we spoke with him, Abu Laila was about to embark on his latest attempt to reach safety in Europe. After he paid an exorbitant amount of money to escape detention and abuse in Libya, he managed to travel to Turkey. He had already tried several times to cross overland to Greece, experiencing violent pushbacks at the border, but he was going to try again. Abu Laila’s determination to find what he hoped would be “a dignified life” illustrates the folly of using aerial surveillance for deterrence. Rather than achieving the goal of sealing off EU borders, or of saving lives and preventing perilous journeys, Frontex surveillance instead makes these journeys more dangerous, at an unfathomable cost to human lives, rights, and dignity.

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More on Human Rights Watch’s work on Refugees and Migrants »

Giovanna Reder, Jack Isles, Svitlana Lavrenchuk, Charles Heller, Stanislas Michel, Luca Obertüfer, Rossana Padaletti, Kiri Santer for Border Forensics, and Giulia Tranchina, Julia Link and Martyna Marciniak for Human Rights Watch, participated in the research and analysis. The production team at Human Rights Watch included Grace Choi and John Emerson.

Thanks to Sea Watch and the Alarm Phone for generously sharing their data with us. We would also like to thank Emmanuel Freudenthal, Arthur Carpentier, Sergio Scandura, Itamar Mann, Dan Streufert, Luisa Izuzquiza, Matthias Monroy, and Dan Gettinger for sharing their expertise and the University of Chicago Global Human Rights Clinic for their support.

Lorenzo Pezzani’s work on this project has been supported by the European Research Council.