How the EU is moving towards drone surveillance of refugees

My major investigation in the UK Observer/Guardian with Daniel Howden and Apostolis Fotiadis was published on 4 August:

Amid the panicked shouting from the water and the smell of petrol from the sinking dinghy, the noise of an approaching engine briefly raises hope. Dozens of people fighting for their lives in the Mediterranean use their remaining energy to wave frantically for help. Nearly 2,000 miles away in the Polish capital, Warsaw, a drone operator watches their final moments via a live transmission. There is no ship to answer the SOS, just an unmanned aerial vehicle operated by the European border and coast guard agency, Frontex.

This is not a scene from some nightmarish future on Europe’s maritime borders but a hypothetical which illustrates a present-day probability. Frontex, which is based in Warsaw, is part of a £95m investment by the EU in unmanned aerial vehicles, the Observer has learned.

This spending has come as the EU pulls back its naval missions in the Mediterranean and harasses almost all search-and-rescue charity boats out of the water. Surveillance drones operated by Frontex, or by agencies or service providers with which Frontex co-operates, appear to be flying over waters off Libya where not a single rescue has been carried out by the main EU naval mission since last August, in what is the deadliest stretch of water in the world.

After publication, the Frontex press office said that “currently Frontex is not using any drones” and not receiving any information from drones.

The replacement of naval vessels, which can conduct rescues, with drones, which cannot, is being condemned as a cynical abrogation of any European role in saving lives.

“There is no obligation for drones to be equipped with life-saving appliances and to conduct rescue operations,” said a German Green party MEP, Erik Marquardt. “You need ships for that, and ships are exactly what there is a lack of at the moment.” This year the death rate for people attempting the Mediterranean crossing has risen from a historical average of 2% to as high as 14% last month. In total, 567 of the estimated 8,362 people who have attempted it so far this year have died.

Gabriele Iacovino, director of one of Italy’s leading thinktanks, the Centre for International Studies, said the move into drones was “a way to spend money without having the responsibility to save lives”. Aerial surveillance without ships in the water amounted to a “naval mission without a naval force”, and was about avoiding embarrassing political rows in Europe over what to do with rescued migrants.