E.U. Border Agency Is Too Weak to Prevent Migrant Boat Disasters, Watchdog Finds

Eight months after hundreds of migrants died in a capsizing on the Mediterranean, investigators said Wednesday that the European Union’s border agency lacks the ability to prevent future maritime disasters.

The investigation by a E.U. watchdog office into the border agency, Frontex, was prompted by the deaths of more than 600 men, women and children who drowned of the coast of Greece last June under the eyes of dozens of officials and coast guard crews.

“Frontex includes ‘coast guard’ in its name, but its current mandate and mission clearly fall short of that,” the head of the E.U. watchdog agency, Emily O’Reilly, said on Wednesday. “If Frontex has a duty to help save lives at sea, but the tools for it are lacking, then this is clearly a matter for E.U. legislators.”

After the capsizing of the Adriana, a severely overcrowded fishing vessel, both Frontex and the Hellenic Coast Guard came under fire for not aiding the passengers of the ship, which had been slowly sinking for hours as terrified migrants on board called for help.

The scale of loss — it was the deadliest shipwreck in the Mediterranean in years — prompted several investigations, including the one by the office of the European Ombudsman that released its report on Wednesday.

In the report, investigators said that with member states failing to act to protect migrants, more legislative authority was needed for search-and-rescue missions to be conducted at an E.U. level.

Under the current system, Frontex has to coordinate closely with local maritime authorities and secure permission before acting. The report also advised that Frontex reconsider its presence in countries where chronic rights abuses of migrants have been recorded.

The investigators also said that the agency lacks internal rules for responding to shipwrecks, and that there was not enough clarity on the division of duties between the agency and national authorities.

Frontex has a delicate mission. It is tasked both with helping guard the European Union’s external borders, but also with safeguarding the rights of migrants who try to cross them.

The agency deploys guards from all over Europe and provides helicopters, boats, drones and other equipment to border countries like Greece. But it has also been accused of covering up and even participating in human rights violations.

Its former executive director, Fabrice Leggeri, resigned in 2022 over accusations of harassment, mismanagement and rights abuses, and the agency pledged reforms under new leadership. But the investigators said on Wednesday that newly appointed human rights monitors were not sufficiently involved in the Frontex decision-making process.

Europe significantly toughened its migration policies following the arrival of over one million refugees, mainly from Syria, from 2015 to 2016, which fueled support for far-right political parties.

The last E.U.-funded search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean ended in 2014. Critics argued that proactively rescuing migrant ships at sea serves as an incentive to migrants to take dangerous routes to get to Europe, and that it also encourages smugglers to risk the lives of their passengers.

The task has since fallen on charities, which have been prosecuted in several E.U. countries, including Greece in Italy, for their rescue activities at sea.

The Greek Coast Guard has said that smugglers on the Adriana refused assistance and that panic onboard caused it to capsize. Several survivors testified that it sank as the Coast Guard tried to tow it, a claim the Greek authorities have denied. Eventually, a Greek Coast Guard vessel, with the help of a superyacht in the area, rescued about 100 people.

While the Adriana was sinking, Frontex made four separate offers to assist the Greek authorities by providing aerial surveillance, the E.U. watchdog said on Wednesday, but received no response and could not go to the ship’s location without Greece’s permission.

The inquiry concluded that Frontex had been at the scene only twice, once by plane two hours after the Italian authorities first issued an alert about the Adriana, and then with a drone after the boat had already sunk.

Greek officials have consistently denied allegations of violating migrants’ rights, saying their migration policy is “tough but fair.”

Ms. O’Reilly called on E.U. institutions to draw lessons from the shipwreck.

“The European Union projects its identity through the prism of its commitment to the rule of law and to fundamental rights,” she said. “In the aftermath of the Adriana tragedy, it should take the opportunity to reinforce that identity through reflection and through actions that would, to the greatest extent possible, prevent such a tragedy from happening again.