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EU watchdog investigates border patrol in Greece boat disaster

BRUSSELS: The EU’s watchdog announced a probe into the bloc’s border enforcement agency Frontex on Wednesday, following the sinking of a boat carrying migrants off the coast of Greece last month, which killed hundreds.

According to ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, the investigation is “aimed at clarifying Frontex’s role in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea following the drowning of hundreds of people off the coast of Greece on 14 June.”

O’Reilly initiated the independent investigation by the European Union inspector into potential examples of improper management by EU bodies.

It adds to the two investigations Greece claims it has launched: a criminal probe into alleged smugglers blamed for the tragedy, and a civil investigation into the acts of the coastguard.

The overcrowded fishing ship that sank was transporting up to 750 passengers apprehended in Libya who were attempting to cross the Mediterranean to join Europe illegally.

According to Greek data conveyed to the European Parliament in early July by EU commissioner Ylva Johansson, perhaps 100 of them were saved, but it is estimated that 600 drowned.

O’Reilly mentioned, “at least 500 people dying.”

During that hearing, EU parliamentarians expressed doubts that the Greek investigations into the sinking would be thorough. They demanded an impartial and open investigation.

Athens has already dismissed survivors’ claims that the Greek coastguard hooked a rope to the drifting vessel and then turned off the engine, causing it to capsize.

O’Reilly stated that her office’s probe would be conducted in collaboration with the Greek Ombudsman’s office.

It will ask for a “wide range” of Frontex records linked to the sinking, including an internal Serious Incident Report and documents related to prior occurrences in the Mediterranean.

Cameras on board ships

One issue will be the rules governing the use of cameras on boats during cooperative operations.

This could reveal why high-tech cameras on a Greek coastguard warship near the migrant boat were turned off at the moment of its demise.

The investigation would also look into how Frontex and national authorities in EU member states share search and rescue information, as well as the role that ships owned by charities play in rescue efforts.

In the same European Parliament session as Johansson on July 6, Frontex chief Hans Leijtens stated that “we offered to help, but there was no response from Greek authorities” on the night of the disaster.

“A tragedy of this magnitude requires all those involved to reflect on their responsibilities and to make it clear to the public who is accountable for these deaths,” O’Reilly said.

She stated that her office’s investigation will “try to piece together the events that led to the boat capsizing.”

The probe will also look into how the EU upholds its commitments to fundamental rights when it comes to migration, “without losing sight of the human suffering that drives people to seek a better life beyond their home countries,” she said.

O’Reilly stated that she intended to conduct other investigations into the EU’s migration and border policy, including one investigating a pact made with Tunisia to reduce migrant departures from its ports.

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