Migrant drone surveillance from Malta: MEP questions information-sharing with ‘pull-back’ countries

Surveillance drone flights being deployed from Malta by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) could be shared with third countries such and Libya and Tunisia

A German MEP has highlighted the possibility that information gathered on the movement of migrant boats by surveillance drone flights being deployed from Malta by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) could be shared with third countries such and Libya and Tunisia.

MEP Özlem Demirel (The Left) is asking the European Commission to clarify the matter, and to also stipulate the drones’ deployment zones, range and type of surveillance technology they are to deploy.

Although the operation is still to take off in earnest, a large drone related to the upcoming missions was seen carrying out a test flight from Malta International Airport on 30 April, two days after Demirel tabled the Parliamentary Question.

It is believed that similar MALE (medium altitude and long flight duration) class drones are, in addition to Malta, to be deployed in Italy and Greece this summer in a bid to track the movements of irregular migrants at sea.

Critics, however, argue that such drone surveillance encourage ‘pull-backs’ to the countries irregular migrants are fleeing. In fact, human rights organisations have accused past EU operations, such the EUNAVFOR MED, of having passed information on to Libyan authorities with a view to having migrants forced by those authorities back to their point of departure.

The EU has reportedly signed two contracts worth €50 million each for this new supply of unmanned drones for irregular migrant surveillance – a joint contract with Airbus and state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, and another with Israel’s largest private arms company Elbit Systems.

It is, however, unclear who will be providing the hardware and software, and who will actually be taking control of operations once they get off the ground.

As such, Demirel is asking the Commission for more clarification on who the players are, and for lists of the main and subcontractors and to state when, exactly, the contract is to start.

What is known is that the EU’s continued use of both these Israeli firms has long drawn the ire of a number of MEPs, who see them as being complicit in human rights violations at home. Israel Aerospace Industries, for example, has been described by MEPs as a key partner the construction of Israel’s controversial West Bank barrier, which many MEPs oppose.

Elbit Systems, meanwhile, comes in for far more criticism from MEPs, having produced surveillance technology for the separation wall dividing off the West Bank, and manufactures the lion’s share of the Israel’s military drones.

Last year, Portuguese MEP Jiao Ferreira also accused the company of being involved in the production of white phosphorous and cluster bombs.

Calling out the European Maritime Safety Agency’s use of Elbit Systems’ Hermes 900 drones for coast guard activities, he said they were the same type of drones “developed for use by the Israeli army to deliberately attack civilians in Gaza during the 2008-2009 massacres” and “to help the Israeli army keep Gaza under the current inhumane blockade”.

The Commission, on its part, in reply insisted that it, “does not have information on the use of the Hermes 900 in military operations. The Remote Pilot Aircraft Services (RPAS) services contracted by EU bodies are delivered for strictly civil surveillance missions, similar as missions undertaken by manned surveillance aircraft.”

It is not known if the operation will use Elbit’s Hermes 900 or IAI’s Heron 1 drone, or both, as they have each been used by Frontex for surveillance missions in the past.

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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