We use cookies to collect and analyse information on site performance and usage to improve and customise your experience, where applicable. View our Cookies Policy. Click Accept and continue to use our website or Manage to review and update your preferences.

EU border agency ‘unable to fulfil obligations’
Pic: European Union

28 Feb 2024 / eu Print

EU border agency ‘can't fulfil obligations’

The European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly (pictured) has called on the EU institutions to set up an independent commission of inquiry to assess the reasons for the large numbers of deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

The call came as the ombudsman published the results of her inquiry into the Adriana shipwreck in June 2023, which resulted in more than 600 people drowning off the coast of Greece.

The probe looked at the role of Frontex, the EU’s border and coast-guard agency, in search-and-rescue operations.

It found that the current rules left Frontex “unable fully to fulfil its fundamental-rights obligations” and too reliant on member states to act when boats carrying migrants were in distress.


According to documents inspected during the inquiry, Frontex made four separate offers to assist the Greek authorities by providing aerial surveillance of the Adriana but received no response.

According to the ombudsman, the current rules mean that Frontex was not allowed to go to the Adriana’s location at critical periods without the Greek authorities’ permission.

As a result, the agency was at the scene of the Adriana only twice — once briefly by plane two hours after the Italian authorities first made the alert about the Adriana, and then 18 hours later with a drone after the boat had already sunk.

The inquiry also showed that Frontex had no internal guidelines on issuing emergency signals and found a failure to ensure that Frontex’s fundamental-rights monitors were sufficiently involved in decision making on maritime emergencies.


“We must ask ourselves why a boat so obviously in need of help never received that help despite an EU agency, two member states’ authorities, civil society, and private ships knowing of its existence,” said O’Reilly.

“Why did reports of overcrowding, an apparent lack of life vests, children on board, and possible fatalities fail to trigger timely rescue efforts that could have saved hundreds of lives?” she added.

The ombudsman said that, if Frontex lacked the tools to fulfil its duty to help save lives at sea, this was “clearly” a matter for EU legislators.

She also referred to “obvious tension” between Frontex’s rights obligations and its duty to support member states in border-management control.


The ombudsman noted that, while the Greek Ombudsman was investigating the actions of the Greek coastguard, there was no single accountability mechanism at EU level that could independently investigate the role of the Greek authorities, the role of Frontex, and the role of the European Commission, which is responsible for ensuring compliance with fundamental-rights provisions under the EU treaties.

She called on the European Parliament, the EU Council, and the commission to establish an independent commission of inquiry to assess the reasons for the large numbers of deaths in the Mediterranean, and to learn from the Adriana shipwreck.

“Nearly eight months after the Adriana incident, no changes have been made to prevent such an incident from re-occurring,” the ombudsman concluded.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland