The Malta Independent 23 January 2021, Saturday

MEPs agree on new Frontex rules of engagement

Malta Independent Thursday, 17 April 2014, 11:45 Last update: about 8 years ago

MEPs have agreed on new rules governing EU border agency Frontex’s search and rescue operations, clarifying how border guards should deal with migrants and where they should disembark them.

The rules – which apply only to operations coordinated by Frontex – should enter into force before this summer, as they have already been informally agreed by Parliament and Council negotiators. The draft regulation was approved by 528 votes to 46, with 88 abstentions: the formal approval of the Council of Ministers is still required.

The European Commission had made its own proposals last year to replace regulations that had been annulled by the European Court of Justice on procedural grounds. But these recommendations had been opposed by Malta and five other Mediterranean countries, which declared them unacceptable for practical and legal reasons.

However, the draft regulations presented by rapporteur Carlos Coelho, a European People’s Party MEP from Portugal, have allayed national concerns: all Maltese MEPs voted in favour of the new rules.

“These new rules will enable Frontex to respond more effectively and to prevent deaths at sea, thus reconciling our need to ensure security with our duty to protect human rights,” Mr Coelho maintained.

Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström welcomed the vote, describing it s “an important step towards enhancing the effects of sea border surveillance operations and to improve coordination in search and rescue situations that may arise during such operations.”

“We have witnessed too many tragic losses of lives in the Mediterranean recently: having clear binding rules on interception, search and rescue and disembarkation will help preventing such tragedies in the future. The new rules will ensure the effective and proper functioning of current and future Frontex-coordinated sea operations, contributing to protecting and saving migrants' lives.”

‘Pushbacks’ explicitly banned in new rules

The draft regulations approved by MEPs prohibit pushback operations on the high seas, mandating that border guards are only allowed to “warn and order” a vessel not to enter the territorial waters of a member states.

This measure appears to address situations such as last summer’s diplomatic standoff involving the rescue of 102 asylum seekers by the oil tanker MT Salamis – which ignored instructions from Malta and Italy to return to the nearest port of call in Libya – and which ultimately ended up in Italy after Malta refused it entry to its territorial waters. Under the new rules, such instructions would not be permissible in rescue operations coordinated by Frontex.

MEPs also tightened up the text to ensure compliance with the principle of non-refoulement, which states that individuals must not be returned to any country where they may risk persecution, torture or other serious harm.

The new regulations also stress that “the shipmaster and crew should not face criminal sanctions for the sole reason of having rescued persons in distress at sea and brought them to a place of safety.” Italian law makes it possible to prosecute them for complicity in human trafficking.

“Emergency phases” for search and rescue operations are defined, and the regulation places a clear duty on units participating in Frontex operations to engage and to save lives.

The operational plans governing Frontex-coordinated border surveillance operations must include procedures to ensure that persons in need of international protections, victims of human trafficking, unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable persons are identified and given appropriate help.

Possible coercive measures may be taken only after migrants are identified: the identification rules are mandatory, whereas the enforcement ones are optional.

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