1)What does Sea-Watch Airborne do? What is the history of creating an air reconnaissance department in Sea Watch?

The background to founding Airborne was the need for documentation of human rights violations at Europe’s borders in the central Mediterranean and to bring them to the attention of a wider public. As a result, a group of people came together in 2016 and luckily we found our cooperation partner HPI (Humanitarian Pilot Initiative) soon and ever since cooperated with them in this operation. Apart from being much faster than the civil rescue ships, our elevated position at around 1.500 feet gives us a way better chance of spotting a boat in distress than from surface level. Ever since 2016, we can monitor how the circumstances in the central Mediterranean become more and more violent. Since 2018, the Libyan Search and Rescue Region is serving as a construct for European actors to avoid their duty to rescue: according to international law, a rescue ends with the disembarkation of people in a place of safety, which is Malta or Italy in this case. Since then, European state actors and Frontex especially have trained the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, removed their surface assets from the area, and supported the Libyan Coast Guard vessels from the air and within reach of their ultimate goal: to prevent people seeking safety from reaching European soil. Our small airplanes, Seabird 1 and Seabird 2, take off from the airport of Lampedusa and fly patterns in front of the Libyan shores. We fly throughout most of the year, with or without NGO ships in the area out, try to document and monitor with the ultimate goal – fight fortress Europe.

Picture: Sea-Watch Airnorne

2) How does Sea-Watch Airborne think strategically about its operations at a time when civilian rescue in the Mediterranean is highly criminalized?

Since we have been part of the whole criminalization wave for years it does not feel so different to previous waves and years. The room for maneuvering for people on the move as well as those who want to change this very painful situation for the better gets smaller. The whole civil fleet gets criminalized on political grounds and it feels like our operation gets more and more in the spotlight of authorities. However, the numbers from 2023 show that we manage to react more strongly to every attempt at criminalization with some 160+ operational flights, and that they will hopefully not succeed in intimidating solidarity structures or even get rid of us.

3) What kind of information is Sea-Watch Airborne able to shed light on about what is happening in the Central Mediterranean?

Operating two aircraft gives us a much wider possibility for the documentation of human rights violations at Europe’s borders. It’s not only from the air that we gather evidence via photo and film, but also from our crew operating on the ground collecting the whole year’s intelligence on the illegal behavior of state authorities. After many years of witnessing the systematic withholding of information by Frontex at sea, the delay of rescue by the Rescue Coordination Center Malta, and the active coordination of pushbacks by the so-called Libyan coast guard, we and other actors were finally able to file a case against Frontex in front of the General Court of the European Union in Luxembourg and shed light on authorities avoiding their duty to rescue people in distress at sea.

The case specifically refers to a pullback on 30 July 2021 in violation of international law, which was witnessed by Airborne and the NGO ship Sea-Watch 3. Within the Maltese search and rescue zone, a boat in distress at sea with around 20 people on board was intercepted by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard and towed back to Libya. As pointed out by the organizations Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics, it must be assumed that Frontex facilitated this illegal interception, as it was their drone that was the first aircraft on the scene of the boat in distress. Frontex’s daily movement form a pattern of aerial patrol and coordinated pushbacks under European law – as well on that specific day.

This is only one of several hundred cases where RCC Malta knowingly withholds information. Our ground crew relays information in case of distress both by phone and email in addition to the radio. Furthermore, we have also observed several times via open-source tracking platforms, such as ADSB, that aircraft operated by Armed Forces Malta or Frontex already detect maritime emergencies several hours in advance before one of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard appears in the horizon. By withholding information on boats in distress from the civil fleet – although those are the only properly equipped vessels conducting sea rescue in that area – people face detention, torture, rape, and death, after being forcibly intercepted and pushed back to Libya.

4) Is there any change in behavior by MRCCs or Frontex due to Sea-Watch Airborne’s presence and documenting of pushbacks and cases of non-assistance?

Unfortunately, we observe that the RCCs (both Malta and Italy) became less cooperative and even more hostile. The impact of our operations is rather that they are more and more annoyed by us – for the obvious reason that we do document them being unresponsive. They rarely share any relevant information and mostly they tell us that they don’t work with NGOs even in very critical situations. Mostly we succeeded if we pressured merchant or private vessels in the area and when they took over responsibility – you could call it pressure by proxy. Italy remains rather professional and distant. Malta remains a total disaster. They hang up on us on the phone, tell Merchant vessels to not engage in a rescue, and just provide people on the distress case with fuel and then continue their journey. We barely ever see the Armed Forces of Malta’s vessels anymore in their SAR area. Frontex handles it a bit differently nowadays. Our pressure has increased and they are aware that we are constantly watching them and that we gathered a lot of operational information on them already. They adapted their operations by sending out more MAYDAY Relay for distress cases – but rather in areas where there is no so-called Libyan Coastguard around. We assume it is for the statistics and the next request for information on them to show something to the public. How they communicate and pass on information to the so-called Libyan Coastguard nowadays remains mysterious – but they surely do.

5) Can you talk about Sea-Watch Airborne’s role specifically in the civil fleet? How do you work together with other civil actors to coordinate civil SAR operations?

Sea-Watch Airborne operations are just one piece of the puzzle in this very complex environment. Within the civil fleet we can provide a different perspective. From the above, with our aircraft, we can cover wider areas and document what happens at sea. This means that we can support other assets at sea, including NGOs. Furthermore, from our perspective and daily work we can monitor how trends change. To do so, we have established a very strong documentation team in our department – which by now can provide good insights on past trends and developments in the central Mediterranean, not only for operational use but also for media and advocacy work. Collaborations with various actors like “Frag den Staat”, investigative journalists or researchers increased over the past years and we could happily provide them with a lot of data, which we gathered from our daily flights. Another huge achievement in which our data was of help, the reconstruction of cases in media work and even for lawsuits – like recently against Frontex.

6) What political developments in the EU have most impacted Sea-Watch Airborne operations over the last few months?

Mainly the same as for every other actor in the central Med. Italy’s fascist government and the EU and their attempt to do deals with countries like Tunisia and Libya. In this line especially the Italian NGO decree for sure has a big impact. Not only on ships but they try to also throw it at our operations. Also, the deal that Italy/the EU made with Tunisia, for sure has an impact on our operations, now that there are deadly effects visible from it. We are  also really worried about the CEAS reform and new deals with Haftar and other militias. Generally speaking, it is super scary what measures have been taken to ascertain the racist border regime of Europe but for sure it is equally empowering to see the resistance against it – although not always so visible.

7) What are some of the biggest challenges Sea-Watch Airborne faces?

One of the biggest challenges recently is that it became clear that the Italian government really is again and again looking for ways to stop our operations. We face some criminalization attempts by the civil aviation authority (ENAC), which is under the control of the Ministry of Transportation – so Salvini. But also last year when we really had to fight our way back into the Libyan Flight Information region (which is almost similar to the Libyan Search and Rescue area) operationally it probably remains the stalemate situation of spotting something but not being able to intervene. Since we don’t operate a ship but fly with 120 knots above the sea it sometimes is a bit draining to document the cruel and violent behavior. On a rather general note, but that is for sure the same for all actors active around the central Mediterranean or working on the topic of migration worldwide, we are very sad and angry about any developments targeting people on the move and those who are in solidarity with them.

ECHOES Issue 10, January 2024 – English