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In the footage, you can see the small, overcrowded wooden boat motoring away in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea as the Libyan Coast Guard vessel, the Ras Jadir, chases it. It is too far away to see any faces, but it seems like the people are aware they are being chased and are trying to evade capture.

They do not succeed. The Libyan Coast Guard eventually catches up with the boat and forces the 20 or so men to board their patrol vessel. After that, the video cuts off. What most likely happened afterwards was that the people from the boat were forcibly returned to Libya to almost certain detention and abuse.

The footage was shot on July 30, 2021, from the Seabird, a plane flown on behalf of the rescue group Sea-Watch and was obtained by Border Forensics and Human Rights Watch as part of our investigation into the practices of the European border agency, Frontex.

The fingerprints of the European Union and Frontex, its border agency, are all over this incident. The EU naval mission EUNAVFOR MED trained the Libyan Coast Guard. Italy donated the Ras Jadir.

Our analysis of the flight tracks of a drone that Frontex operates out of Malta suggests it very likely detected the wooden boat, as it was flying in the area on that day. It probably sent video and other data to its headquarters in Warsaw, where staff in turn passed the information to coastal authorities, including the Libyan Coast Guard.

Simply put, without the material, operational, and political support provided by the EU, this and many other sea interceptions would not have been possible.

Our research demonstrates that Frontex uses its vast resources to assist interceptions of refugee and migrant boats by Libyan forces. Over the last few years, Frontex has signed contracts with private companies to operate a remote-piloted Heron drone and several piloted planes out of airports in Malta and Italy. We obtained copies of them through freedom of information requests.

Each of these aircraft monitors a specific area of the central Mediterranean, forming a tightly knit yet extensive web of aerial patrol. Frontex aircraft have more than doubled their flight time over the central Mediterranean, from 1,396 hours in the air in 2018 to 2,869 hours in 2021.

On July 30, 2021, a date we looked at closely, Frontex’s own database recorded five interceptions facilitated by its aerial surveillance programme. Our analysis of its flight tracks suggests the drone spotted at least three of them.

Frontex says aerial surveillance helps to save lives, and that it has to alert all coastal authorities, including the Libyan Coast Guard, when it spots a boat in distress. The border agency told us it only sends out mayday alerts to all ships in the area if there is a risk of imminent loss of life, in other words, if the boat is about to sink. The Sea-Watch 3, an NGO rescue vessel, was near the wooden boat and could have provided assistance and taken the people on board to safety in Europe. Frontex did not alert them.

Data analysis by Border Forensics suggests that on days when Frontex assets fly more hours over their area of operation, the Libyan Coast Guard tends to intercept more vessels. At the same time, the flights have not had a meaningful impact on deaths at sea.

Frontex told us they issued 21 mayday alerts in the central Mediterranean between January 2020 and April 2022, while it says its aircraft made 433 detections in that operational area in 2021 alone.

This low number of mayday alerts compared with the number of boat sightings is based on a deliberately narrow interpretation of when a boat is in distress. This allows Frontex to alert Libyan authorities, even though the EU knows the Libyan Coast Guard is returning people to abusive situations, and gives it an excuse not to alert nearby vessels, including nongovernmental ships, which would seek to take passengers to safe European ports.

Frontex aerial surveillance now forms a central plank of the EU’s strategy to prevent asylum seekers from reaching Europe by boat and to knowingly return them to unspeakable abuse in Libya.

It goes hand in hand with the withdrawal of EU ships from the central Mediterranean, the handover of responsibility to Libyan forces, and the harassment of nongovernmental rescue groups. The increasing reliance on aerial surveillance is an attempt by the EU to further remove itself physically and legally from its responsibilities: It allows the EU to maintain a distance from boats in distress while keeping a close eye from the sky.

Ultimately, though, providing the Libyan Coast Guard with the information needed to capture people at sea, knowing full well the arbitrary detention, violence, and exploitation people face upon return to Libya, makes the EU complicit in this abuse.

At a recent meeting in Brussels, EU interior ministers “underlined the need to prevent loss of lives at sea”. Yet, they also approved an action plan that strengthens cooperation with Libya and reinforces aerial surveillance.

Under the EU’s deterrence approach, the Mediterranean has become the deadliest migration route in the world. Only a fundamental re-orientation of European migration policies towards legal and safe passage could help end this senseless carnage. Frontex itself also needs to be scrutinised for its practices, especially after new evidence emerged that it has engaged in serious misconduct, including covering up unlawful and abusive pushbacks of asylum seekers and migrants by Greece to Turkey.

In the meantime, EU countries should use aerial surveillance to support rescue at sea and disembarkations in safe ports, rather than returns to abuse in Libya. Frontex, and member states like Italy and Malta, should consider all overcrowded, unseaworthy boats in open waters to be in peril and alert all vessels in the area to ensure timely assistance, and cooperate with, rather than harass civilian rescue groups.

Otherwise, all the EU’s pledges about saving lives at sea will remain tragically empty rhetoric.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.


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