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BVMN Submission to the European Ombudsman’s Inquiry OI/3/2023/MHZ: Role of Frontex in Search and Rescue Operations

Date 31 October, 2023
Category Policy Brief

Frontex, tasked with safeguarding fundamental human rights, particularly in supporting individuals at sea, has fallen short of fulfilling its obligations in recent years. Instead of upholding maritime law, the agency has shown a preference for deterrence tactics, whitewashing incident reports, and neglecting encounters with those on the move. These actions constitute clear violations of rights and legal standards. This has been reflected in their failure to assist and prevent the Pylos shipwreck. Despite this, Frontex has failed to invoke Article 46 of Regulation (EU) 2019/1896, which grants authority to suspend operations in the face of violations.

The submission also includes two incidents known to BVMN highlighting Frontex’s responsibility in joint operations and the duty of its staff to uphold international human rights standards. In one instance, a Swedish Frontex vessel observed a rubber boat with 25 individuals onboard, including women and children, near Chios, Greece, and suspected a pushback by the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG). Despite instructions to head north, the commander recognized the potential distress of the individuals and would have stayed if necessary. This action underscores the prioritization of human rights standards. Similarly, a Danish Frontex vessel refused orders to return 33 rescued individuals to Turkish waters, demonstrating a commitment to upholding EU law and human rights principles. These incidents indicate that Frontex officers recognize and are willing to defy orders that jeopardize the rights of people on the move.

This submission also highlights Frontex’s involvement in systematic human rights abuses, including pushbacks and abandonment of individuals on islets in the Evros River. Despite evidence of Frontex officers’ active participation and awareness of these violations, the Agency has failed to intervene or take appropriate action, which is in violation of its legal obligations under EU law. Article 46(4) of Regulation (EU) 2019/1896 mandates Frontex to suspend or terminate operations in case of serious violations of fundamental rights, yet it has neglected to do so for their Greek operations despite repeated calls for intervention. Furthermore, Frontex’s lack of response to urgent appeals and notifications of individuals stranded on islets demonstrates a disregard for its duty to protect human rights. Immediate action is needed to terminate Frontex operations in Greece and ensure accountability for the extensive violations documented by BVMN and other organizations.