By JONATHAN DOWDALL
BRUSSELS – During 2011 some 1,500 people lost their lives attempting to illegally enter the European Union across the Mediterranean Sea. Facing such stark figures, experts and members of the European Parliament (MEPs) now want Eurosur — the EU’s forthcoming border surveillance system — to engage more strongly in search and rescue (SAR) tasks.
One particularly harrowing example of the EU’s maritime SAR challenge occurred in March 2011 when a desperately over-loaded boat containing 72 migrants from war-torn Libya floundered on the way to Italy. All but nine of the migrants subsequently died at sea, despite the near-by presence of numerous Italian, Maltese and NATO maritime assets in the area.
A report assessing what went wrong during this incident was recently produced by the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe (CoE), the 47-nation pro-democracy body based in Strasbourg. Its findings were presented by the report’s author, Dutch Senator Tineke Strik, and debated during a think-tank event here on 6 July.
According to Strik, the mishap was the result of a “vacuum of responsibility” in maritime SAR. Technically stranded within Italy’s sovereign SAR area, the boat had the double misfortune of sitting not only within 20 km of both the Maltese and Libyan SAR zones but was also in an area designated as an “active patrol zone” of the NATO forces deployed in the region. The resulting ambiguity of who was in control led to the failure of military, civil and international SAR actors to clarify and co-ordinate a rapid response, with fatal consequences.
The CoE report concludes that urgent solutions must be found to eliminate the ambiguity. Strik said “there needs to be one integral EU package for handling maritime SAR issues – one that interfaces with the international laws of the sea, information exchanges and even financial responsibilities”. One model could be to by compensate private vessels that deviate from their course to save lives, she suggested.
For many experts, the pillar for shoring up such solutions is already evolving in the form of Eurosur (whose formal name is “European Border Surveillance System”). Due for launch in October 2013 and led by Frontex – the EU’s external border management agency in Warsaw – Eurosur will enable all national authorities and EU agencies directly or indirectly affected by land and sea border surveillance to exchange data files and a common operational awareness picture of activity around the 27 EU nations’ shared external frontier.
The CoE report’s recommendations directly mirror Eurosur’s intended information sharing functions. For instance, it urges Europe to rectify “the lack of communication and understanding demonstrated between the Rome maritime rescue body and its neighbours”.
However others worry that, while Eurosur will help breach today’s information-sharing gaps between the EU27, its direct applicability to SAR functions could be in doubt. One potential problem is that the Eurosur’s technical mandate, published in late 2011, addresses SAR only tangentially. As one Green MEP told a parliamentary hearing on 26 June, “the Commission argues that Eurosur will help save migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Yet, search and rescue is explicitly excluded from the scope of Eurosur.” (For more analysis and opinion about Eurosur, see related “Borderline” story in this issue.)
Charmaine Hili, policy officer at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Home Affairs, which oversees Eurosur’s roll-out, admitted during the July 6 think-tank debate that Eurosur’s relationship with SAR has yet to be formalised.
“Many have expressed disappointment that SAR only gets a passing reference in the new mandate — a few lines at most”, Hili said. “On the Commission side, we are keen to further enhance the SAR provisions of the Eurosur mandate to save lives in such situations [as the Libya case], provided that the member states are willing to support that vision.”
Clearly, with CoE experts and MEPs both calling for such a move, the ball is now in the member states’ court, as they consider whether to lend a more robust SAR component to Eurosur prior to its launch in 2013.
Expanding Eurosur’s mandate to focus more heavily on SAR is a no-brainer. The system will be configured to communicate with most, if not all, stakeholders involved in such scenarios anyway. Adding one more task to the information sharing list is hardly prohibitive. Indeed, Hili implied that SAR was simply a low priority during the initial drafting of Eurosur’s mandate – which preceded the boatload incident – and it would not be difficult to incorporate into the mandate.
But she also cautioned that no amount of information sharing will lead to a perfect SAR record. As long as migrants remain willing to take the risk of an over-loaded boat, their lives are in danger. ”We may need to be realistic about what can be achieved — accidents will always happen at sea,” she observed.