Keeping an eye on the Mediterranean : the EU’s use of drones

| Justine GUILLEMOT, student in Master 2 International and European Law at the Faculty of Law, Economics, and Management, University of Angers

Recently, the European Union has changed their means of surveillance over the Mediterranean Sea. For years, they used to have naval vessels on the water. But at the same time as FRONTEX (the European border and coast guard agency) has started to use drones, they pulled back their naval vessels. In other words: drones came to replace ships.

Why is that a humanitarian disaster?

As everybody knows, the Mediterranean Sea has become one of the most dangerous parts of the world for migrants. Indeed, a considerable number of humans fleeing their home country take the chance to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Libyan smugglers have taken advantage of this business by promising them that they could join the European continent for a certain amount of money. After days or months of working, or being abused in a detention center, some of them have the opportunity (if we can call it like that) to try to reach Europe by small boat. As the sea is out of control, their best chance to survive is to be rescued by a humanitarian boat, a military boat (from FRONTEX for instance) or a civil boat.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) requires vessels to report and offer assistance with a vessel in distress (article 98). This is why the EU naval missions have rescued migrants, even when they were not specifically sent to sea with the mission to carry out these rescues. The obligation under article 98 of the UNCLOS bounds every vessel, not only Search and Rescue (SAR) vessels.

Drones don’t rescue anybody. However, the main issue with drones is that they operate in a legal grey zone which isn’t covered by the UNCLOS. To clarify, it means that a drone (at least the person who operates it at distance) who becomes witness of a situation of distress in the Mediterranean Sea, isn’t bound by any international obligation of reporting or rescuing.

This seems to be precisely why the European Union has chosen to supervise the Mediterranean Sea by drones instead of naval vessels, as they used to do.

Why is the utilization of drones for SAR operations unclear?

It’s a legal issue. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is to simply produce a law which imposes SAR obligations to drone users, or at least, an obligation to report the situation of distress they may observe.
However, the trouble here is that there already are some international laws on this issue: boats are bound by sea law with the UNCLOS, and aircraft are bound by air law with the Chicago Convention. Moreover, both organizations (the International maritime organization and the International civil aviation organization) have cooperated to produce the IAMSAR manual which sums up all vessels’ and aircrafts’ obligations in SAR operations. But there isn’t yet any clear obligation that is binding for drone operators.

What does this say about the European Union?

It’s easy to point out that the utilization of drones does not provide evidence of any change of position from the European Union. In fact, for quite some time already, the European Union prefers to fund Libyan coast guards to intercept migrant boats rather than fund their own search and rescue operations. From my point of view, this only shifts the problem around. As soon as they return to Libya, the intercepted migrants will wait a few days or a few weeks before getting back into another makeshift boat to risk their lives again in the waves of the Mediterranean Sea a, hoping to meet a boat that will, finally, help them and take them to a place of safety.

Thus, the decision of the European Union to pull back their naval vessels from the sea and only use drones in this area is simply the logical continuation of their way of operating.

Of course, we can consider that through the utilization of drones, the European Union undoubtedly, meets its obligation of oversight of the Mediterranean Sea. However, by doing so, it takes into account the certain death of hundreds of human beings. From my personal point of view, even considering this is not intentional, and the use of drone is just a new mean of surveillance, it is morally wrong, since the decision-makers know about the consequences. Which in turn is in flagrant contradiction with the oft-quoted values of the European Union, especially the key value of « human dignity ».

Focus on the news

In February, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Member States of the European Union have agreed on the relaunch of a new maritime operation in Mediterranean sea. But this operation will be in a redesigned version which will no longer contain any aspect linked to the management of migration, as it used to be in the previous maritime operation Sophia.

On March 31th 2020, Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, announced the launch of the EUNAVFOR MED IRINI operation, which succeeds the maritime operation Sophia. It aims to enforce the arms embargo imposed on Libya and began on April 1st. As predicted back in February, this operation does not include the rescue at sea of people trying to reach Europe from Libya. As Josep Borell said “It is not the only solution, but it is an important part of the solution, to contribute to a permanent ceasefire”. Thus, it is clear that the boats that will be in the Mediterranean are not intended to provide assistance to shipwrecked people.

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
lighthouseua (7 avril 2020). Keeping an eye on the Mediterranean : the EU’s use of drones. The Lighthouse. Consulté le 15 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

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