This open letter was published on the 2nd March and signed by 20 NGOs engaged in or in support of search and rescue in the central Mediterranean Sea.

Dear Hans Leijtens,

As of today, you are the new Executive Director of Frontex.

Your agency has been involved in the countless scandals, entailing the attempts to hide the agency’s involvement in the innumerable violations of the human rights of the people on the move. These scandals range from the involvement in the pushbacks in the Aegean (1), and exchanging Whatsapp messages with the so-called Libyan Coast Guard (2), to manipulating internal reports on human rights violations and lying at least 11 times to the European Parliament (3).

On the 19th of January 2023, you declared, during a press conference, that you are “not the type of director who builds a fence around Frontex“, but that you rather “want to open the doors“, and that “NGOs weremore than welcome to give their informationtous” (4). Furthermore, you claimed that “we are going torestore trust by being very transparent about what we are doing and how we are doing it. We are going to do our jobs in accordance with the law and in accordance with what member states want.There should be absolutely nothing to hide” (5).

We, civil organizations engaged in the Search and Rescue (SAR) activities, seize this opportunity to ask you to live up to your promises. We thus demand replies to the following questions:

  1. Since 2015, the civil society has tried to fill the gap that was left by the competent authorities responsible for the search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean Sea. We have supported thousands of individuals in reaching Europe safely, to exercise their right to seek asylum. Still, in the majority of cases, your agency refuses to acknowledge the rescue capacities of the NGOs, and does not inform civil SAR vessels about individuals in distress. Instead, your agency directly coordinates pushbacks with the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, even using Whatsapp Messages (6), while knowing perfectly well that Libya is not a place of safety.

    Why do you not inform all the actors at sea who arein the vicinityof, and capable of carrying out rescuesin accordance withthe international law, aboutdistress cases?Which specific measures have you envisioned with an aimto ensure thatcivil societyactors at seaarefullyinformed about boats in distress,in order to guaranteesafe and swiftrescue operations, in compliance with the international maritime and human rights law?

  2. On 30th July 2021, the rescue vessel “Sea-Watch 3”, and the civil monitoring aircraft “Seabird” witnessed an interception of individuals in distress in the Maltese SAR zone. As thoroughly analysed by the Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics (7), the “Heron” drone had sighted the distress case but has never informed any civil or private assets operating in the area. The agency even refused to share the documents of that incident with Sea-Watch (8). Furthermore, the Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics have demonstrated that other interceptions, which occurred in the Libyan SAR zone, were likely facilitated by Frontex, although the NGO vessels, “Nadir” (operated by RESQSHIP), “Ocean Viking” (operated by the SOS MEDITERRANEE), and “Sea-Watch 3” (operated by Sea-Watch), were operational on that day.

    Canyouconfirm thatFrontex operatedthe “Heron drone and did sightdistress caseson that day, but did not informanyNGO vesselsin the vicinity and ready to rescue?Who took this decision, andbased onwhichreasons?Do you consider the Frontex operation conducted on that day to be in accordance withthe international law?Why has Frontex refusedto communicate transparentlyregarding this specific day and in particular regarding the boat in distress later intercepted in the Maltese SAR zone?Is this refusal to provide information in line with the promise of transparency you had made before assuming office?

  3. In December 2022, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) filed a communication to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, demonstrating that Frontex’ cooperation with Libyan actors with regard to interceptions at sea amounts to crimes against humanity.

    Looking at Frontex’
    continuous and willful contribution to human rights violations in Libya,what kind ofinvestigationswill you initiate, in order to ensure that Frontex officials would no longer be co-perpetrators of crimes against humanity?

  4. It is widely documented that Libya is not a safe place for people on the move, and that Libya cannot be considered a “place of safety” according to the international maritime law (10). Similarly, there is extensive documentation of Frontex’ involvement in the human rights violations (11). On the 19th of January 2023, you stated you were “responsible for the fact that my people don’t participate in anything called a pushback.” (12)

    Based on this statement
    , and your legal obligations according tothe Art. 46 Regulation 2019/1896, when do you plantoterminate Frontex’ current operations in the Central Med?

As search and rescue NGOs, we demand that your agency lives up to your alleged three “guiding principles”: “accountability, respect for fundamental rights and transparency“. (13)

In order to live up to these self-alleged principles, as well as to comply with the legal framework governing your work, the first act of your agency should be to immediately terminate Frontex operations in the Central Med.

NGOs engaged in or in support of Search and Rescue in the central Mediterranean Sea:
  • Borderline-Europe
  • Boza fii (Benn kàddu – Benn yoon)
  • Civilfleet-Support
  • LeaveNoOneBehind
  • Louise Michel
  • MEDITERRANEA – Saving Humans (Italy)
  • Iuventa Crew
  • Open Arms
  • r42-sailtraining
  • ResQ – People Saving People
  • Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario
  • Sea-Eye
  • Sea Punks
  • Sea-Watch
  • Seebrücke – Schafft sichere Häfen
  • United4Rescue
  • Watch the Med – Alarm Phone

Published in Echoes#5