Eyes in the sky: Monitoring the Mediterranean


Aerial surveillance is essential for preventing and detecting irregular migration, as well as tackling cross-border crimes. A crew from Frontex, originating from Denmark, is currently stationed in Sicily to assist with border control at the EU’s external borders.

“I see something down there – on the right side. It’s an orange object. Maybe a life jacket…”

...says the Italian observer from the Guardia di Finanza, drawing the crew’s attention to what he’s spotted outside the aircraft window. The Mission System Operator, with the call sign IWA, frantically searches her screen displaying the aircraft camera’s footage. She has the ability to direct the camera and zoom in on potential points of interest. This camera can also detect heat sources, such as human body heat.

However, IWA struggles to locate the object pointed out through the aircraft window. She requests the pilot to make another pass over the area. On this attempt, she successfully locates the orange object on her screen. Could it really be a life jacket? All aboard anxiously wait as she zooms in.

“No, it looks like a beach air mattress,” she says.

Shortly after, IWA once again draws attention to her screen. Now, a rubber boat comes into view, drifting in the water. Its engine is folded neatly, and a surfboard is tethered to its side. There’s no sign of any people, either aboard or in the surrounding waters. The crew finds no evidence of diving equipment or buoys. They report this sighting to the International Coordination Center (ICC) to determine if a search and rescue operation is necessary, or if it’s merely another abandoned vessel in the Mediterranean.

The Detachment Commander, known by the call sign DOC (who is actually a physician back in Denmark), has led his crew from the Danish Air Force Home Guard in Sicily for three weeks. They fly their aircraft for aerial surveillance sessions over the Mediterranean daily, each lasting up to five hours.

This is an example of how EU member states, under Frontex’s coordination, support the national authorities at the EU’s external borders. The agency’s main task is border surveillance, tackling irregular migration – often facilitated by smuggling networks – as well as other maritime crimes like illegal fishing and environmental pollution.

“I think it’s very important that EU countries collectively participate in the defence of EU external borders. That’s why we have come all the way from Denmark to support Italy in their efforts”, says DOC.

Aerial surveillance also plays a critical role in promptly alerting national authorities about individuals in distress at sea. Frontex steps in to aid search and rescue (SAR) missions as needed, with their endeavours last year resulting in the rescue of over 24 000 people.

During their deployment, the Danish crew identified several incidents of suspected irregular migration, with two instances leading to SAR operations. On one occasion, they spotted a roughly ten-metre-long sailboat. The aircraft’s camera showed individuals on deck, but most hurriedly disappeared below as the plane approached.

“It was that behaviour we reacted to. It looked suspicious”, explains IWA. “In fact, it turned out that that modest-sized sailboat was carrying as many as 76 irregular migrants. We don’t know how long they had been en route, but it must have been extremely crowded below deck.”

Frontex employs both aircraft and drones for aerial border patrols. Their ability to detect illegal border activities is pivotal. To date, over 130 000 detections have been reported on the Central Mediterranean route this year – a figure 78% higher than that of the same period in 2022, and just shy of the record set in 2016. This upward trend in migration from northern Africa to Europe via Italy is projected to persist. Frontex’s latest risk analysis report anticipates a surge next year. Regrettably, as a result, the number of maritime fatalities is likely to rise. Tragically, this trend will continue as long as ruthless traffickers risk the lives of migrants, sending them on perilous journeys in overcrowded, barely seaworthy vessels.