EU rules must change to avoid new migrant ship tragedy: ombudsman

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Brussels, Belgium, Feb 29 (AFP/APP):Rules making the EU's border and coastguard agency Frontex dependent on national authorities must change to avoid a repeat of a migrant ship tragedy off Greece last year that cost some 600 lives, an official probe concluded on Wednesday.
              "Frontex has a duty to help save lives at sea, but the tools for it are lacking, then this is clearly a matter for EU legislators," EU ombudsman Emily O'Reilly said as she presented her report.
              A seven-month probe by her office into the June 13-14, 2023 sinking of an overcrowded trawler, the Adriana, crammed with migrants trying to reach Europe, found Frontex is unable to fully uphold EU rights obligations when carrying out sea rescues under current rules.
              "Frontex includes 'coast guard' in its name but its current mandate and mission clearly fall short of that," O'Reilly said.
              She warned that, unless the rules changed, it is likely "there will be a repeat of the Adriana tragedy", one of the worst to happen in European waters. 
              Only 104 survivors were rescued and 82 bodies recovered after the ship -- estimated to have been carrying more than 750 people -- sank off Pylos, Greece.
              Survivors said the Greek coastguard tied a rope to the Adriana and powered off out to sea, causing it to capsize. Greek officials deny that account.
              The ombudsman's investigation noted that Greek coastguard recording equipment was switched off during the interaction with the Adriana and survivors said Greek coastguard officials took away their mobile phones.


              - 'Fortress Europe' -


              The tragedy occurred as Greece, along with Italy, was tightening borders against migrant arrivals after large inflows in 2015-2016, and as the EU was working through an overhaul of its rules on asylum-seekers.
              Rules approved in December aim to share hosting responsibilities across the 27-country bloc -- and to speed up deportations of irregular migrants deemed ineligible to stay. 
              Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch slammed the changes as a further shift towards "Fortress Europe".
              O'Reilly urged Frontex to weigh whether it should "terminate, withdraw or suspend its activities" in EU countries where there were "concerns" that working with national authorities may limit its duty to uphold rights and save lives.
              "There is obvious tension between Frontex's fundamental rights obligations and its duty to support member states in border management control," she said.
              O'Reilly also called on the European Parliament, European Commission and the European Council representing EU member states to launch an independent commission of inquiry into the tragedy and the "large number of deaths in the Mediterranean".
              The ombudsman's office has no power to enforce recommendations from its inquiries, only to flag areas of concern.
              The European Commission on Wednesday said it had "taken note" of the report. "We will duly assess it and respond to it thoroughly," said spokeswoman Anitta Hipper.
              She noted that, "when it comes to search and rescue, this is a matter of competence for the member states" -- meaning that Frontex operates only as a support agency to national authorities in the EU countries where it operates.


              - Greek probe -


              Greece is carrying out its own probe of the Adriana tragedy, though O'Reilly's office noted that its coastguard had decided against an internal investigation.
              The report said it was "regrettable" that there was no independent body that could study the roles played by Frontex, the Greek coastguard and the European Commission, which is tasked with ensuring EU countries and agencies comply with European rights.
              Former EU member Britain last week signed a deal with Frontex to crack down on the irregular arrival of migrants, as London tries to stop small boats with asylum-seekers crossing the Channel from France.
              In the latest incident, French authorities said a migrant who tried to cross the Channel to Britain in a makeshift vessel died on Wednesday, while two others were reported missing.