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AFM ‘interested’ in EU-sponsored drones for migrant surveillance at sea

The Armed Forces of Malta have expressed interest in benefitting from a European Union-sponsored project involving the deployment of unmanned drones to assist in migrant patrols at sea.

Karl Stagno-Navarra
29 July 2012, 12:00am
The Armed Forces of Malta interested in deployment of unmanned drones to assist in migrant patrols at sea.
The Armed Forces of Malta have expressed interest in benefitting from a European Union-sponsored project involving the deployment of unmanned drones to assist in migrant patrols at sea.

Proposed late last year and currently undergoing trials in several EU countries, EUROSUR project is intended to put more technology at the disposal of Frontex, the EU agency charged with managing frontiers, combating cross-border crime and contrasting migrants.

The project, set to start in 2013, is to establish a mechanism for Member States' authorities carrying out border surveillance activities to share operational information and to cooperate with each other and with FRONTEX in order to reduce the number of irregular immigrants entering the EU undetected, and to increase internal security by preventing cross-border crime, such as trafficking in human beings and the smuggling of drugs

An AFM spokesman told MaltaToday that while the armed forces are "fully involved in the development of the system" it is however "not participating in the testing of such drones."

The spokesman explained that although the AFM is not currently participating in the testing of UAVs in connection with EUROSUR, "the AFM remains interested in all that concerns maritime surveillance and open to any opportunity that is of benefit."

But the EUROSUR project, has raised deep suspicion among human rights and migrant-support groups that consider it as an expensive tool of hard-line right-wing politicians that will undermine safety for thousands of people.

European Commission officials say the drones will drastically reduce deaths at sea, although they have not specified how.

"EUROSUR will help detect and fight criminal networks' activities and be a crucial tool for saving migrants who put their lives at risk trying to reach EU shores," said Cecilia Malmström, the EU's commissioner for home affairs.

But EUROSUR's opponents claim the drones and other new measures will be used to criminalise migrants before they reach EU territory. They say that would not only breach international laws on the right to asylum, but also risk more deaths at sea.

"Drones are very expensive and they don't help," Ska Keller, a German member of the European Parliament, said. "Even if a drone detects a vessel, it can't do anything for them. You need to have actual people there, and having a drone doesn't guarantee that."

Keller, a migration spokesperson for the Green alliance of EU politicians, says the reasons given for the use of drones resemble those for why European coastguards and NATO vessels ignored a stricken boat on which 63 African migrants died last year.

A nine-month investigation by the Council of Europe - a human rights watchdog that oversees the European Court of Human Rights - said the boat was left to drift for two weeks after distress calls were logged and its position tracked. The probe blamed institutional and human failure.

Tineke Strik, who oversaw the investigation, called the incident "a dark day for Europe." Her report cited a climate of fear that discourages ships from picking up migrants by threatening prosecution for helping them enter European territory.

Keller says EUROSUR is a product of the same attitudes. She says increasingly vocal right-wing groups want to prevent migrants from becoming a European responsibility by returning them to their point of origin before they reach European borders.

She says that would not only deny genuine asylum seekers the chance to escape persecution, but would return them into the hands of their oppressors. EUROSUR's plan to share migrants' personal data with third countries could also put those migrants in danger, Keller adds.

A report by the civil rights watchdog Statewatch also criticized EURSUR's surveillance measures as counter to EU migration policy. It said a plan to create "buffer zones" to keep migrants away from European waters was "incompatible" with the EU's position on human rights.

"We harbour strong reservations about the current trajectory of EU border control-policy and the role that increased surveillance plays in this context," it said. The group asked why EUROSUR has yet to be fully debated in the European parliament.