Canary Islands tragedy: did the RAF put border security before human safety?

Canary Islands tragedy: did the RAF put border security before human safety?

Written by: Liz Fekete

An official inquiry was prompted in Spain after twenty-one migrants, trying to cross from the North African coast to the Canary Islands, drowned in two separate incidents in June. Their boats capsized after being intercepted by Spanish patrols. But now questions are being asked about the role of British planes deployed in the region as part of the multinational ‘Operation Ulysses’.

Beverley Hughes, the immigration minister at the home office, responding to a parliamentary question asked by Jeremy Corbyn MP on 18 September 2003, has detailed Britain’s commitment to Operation Ulysses, the EU maritime border project in the Mediterranean and Atlantic. In September, an official Interior Ministry inquiry opened in Puerto del Rosano, the capital of Fuerteventura, into the drowning, in June, of twenty-one migrants in two shipwrecks off the Canary Islands. Below, we report on how the British Royal Air Force (RAF) is being dragged into the controversy over the reckless nature of Operation Ulysses.

What is Operation Ulysses?

The multinational maritime border control project, Operation Ulysses, was set up as part of the EU Council’s Border Control Programme, instigated following the Seville Summit of June 2002. Presented as the prototype of policing of coastal frontiers within the EU, Operation Ulysses provides armed vessels from several countries to detect the hundreds of small overloaded boats that set out from North Africa. Once detected, the aim is to intercept the boats in international waters and then return the desperate voyagers to their country of origin.

According to Spanish interior minister, Angel Acebes, the aim of Operation Ulysses is to create a ‘rectangular filter’ six nautical miles in width, with a length measured in multiples of 12 miles according to the number of ships. He added that any boat attempting to pass through that filter would be detected, since the radars of the ships taking part in the patrols have a 12-mile range.

Under the first phase of Operation Ulysses, initiated in January 2003, armed vessels from Spain, Britain, France, Italy and Portugal patrolled sections of the Mediterranean coastline. This phase – the command centre of which was based in the Campo de Gibraltar port Algeciras – focused on the Strait of Gibraltar. The second phase was launched on February 8 when Operation Ulysses was extended to include the Atlantic zone of the Sahara, which includes the maritime frontier of the Canary Islands. According to Beverley Hughes, the British government contributed a Customs and Excise Cutter vessel to the first phase of the operation and a Nimrod aircraft for the second phase. (The four-engined Nimrod MR2 from RAF Kinloss in Morayshire, deployed in Operation Ulysses, is derived from the first jet airliner and has been used in war time as a spy plane in Iran and Afghanistan. It was recently upgraded as part of a multi-billion pound defence programme and is now equipped with eavesdropping and detection technology.) In addition to providing the Nimrod for surveillance purposes, the Home Office and the British Embassy in Spain have lent administrative assistance to Operation Ulysses.

Why controversial?

Even before it was launched, Operation Ulysses was mired in controversy. Refugee rights groups argued that the aim of this border project – to detect boats in international waters and return all those onboard, regardless of whether they were asylum seekers – was in breach of Article 31 of the Geneva Convention. This states that those who use illegal methods to enter a country should not be penalised if their purpose in so doing is to seek asylum. It was also in breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out the right to claim asylum in another country. But in early June, criticism intensified when twenty-one migrants drowned in two separate incidents close to the Canary Islands under the saturation surveillance of Operation Ulysses. The two incidents, which took place on 2 and 10 June, are now the subject of an official interior ministry inquiry.

But since 10 June, there have been further deaths, which have been left outside the scope of the inquiry. On 20 June, eight corpses were recovered from the sea when a boat containing twenty-five people capsized near the coast of Fuerteventura. There are allegations that those on board became nervous when a police patrol boat approached. Panicking, they either jumped or fell overboard. In another incident towards the end of July, two migrants drowned (thirteen others were rescued) when the boat they were travelling in capsized after a vessel from the civil guard approached. The civil guard called off the search on the basis that the water depth at the point of capsize was twelve kilometres. In 2001, fifteen sub-Saharan Africans fell into the water in the same area; their bodies were never recovered.

From Operation Relex to Operation Ulysses

Operation Ulysses is startlingly similar to Operation Relex, the saturation surveillance operation set up by the Australian government after the notorious Tampa incident. It involves a naval blockade and the deployment of spy planes in the Indian Ocean. Operation Relex has been subject to intense parliamentary debate, particularly after 353 people, mostly Iraqis, and including 146 children, drowned when the 19-metre wooden vessel (known as SIEVX*) carrying 397 passengers sank in international waters in the Indian Ocean, north of Australia’s Christmas Island, in the Australian Operation Relex border protection surveillance and interception zone. A Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident (CMI) raised uncomfortable questions for the Howard government as to why those involved in Operation Relex did not detect the boat in danger and take emergency action to save lives. Since the inquiry wound up, Labor Senators, John Faulkner and Jacinta Collins, have sought to keep the issue in the public eye by persistently questioning officials at biannual senate estimates hearings. There is also a senate motion calling for a full independent judicial inquiry into the sinking of SIEVX and Australia’s People Smuggling Disruption Programme in Indonesia. Campaigners involved in the SIEVX issue believe that Operation Ulysses is working very much along the same lines as Operation Relex and that more questions should be asked.

More and more questions

Spanish interior minister Angel Acebes claimed in parliament that Operation Ulysses in the Canaries has been ‘very positive’ and hadshown ‘concrete results’ in the matter of reception and interception of irregular migration. But a growing cross-section of Spanish civil society disagrees. The Spanish Ombudsman, the Red Cross, the Spanish Commission for Aid to Refugees, the Spanish League of Human Rights, the Associación de Trabajadores Immigrantes Morroquíes en España (ATIME), trades unions and parliamentarians from the United Left are among those calling for a full parliamentary commission of inquiry into these deaths and into Operation Ulysses. ATIME is drawing attention to the ‘similarity and repetition of these accidents which are completely avoidable’. The Union Général de Trabajadores (UGT) is considering taking an action against the Spanish government for ‘indirect responsibility for these deaths’ and has written to the European Union’s Petition Committee calling for the review of maritime coastline inspections as a result of them. It points out that radar equipment, available in Lanzarote by the defence and interior ministries to detect boats, is not made available to coastal patrols, and that while the Ministry of Defence tracks boats leaving the coast of Africa bound for Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, it does not pass on this information to other agencies – thus putting lives further at risk. Operation Ulysses and the Integrated System for the Surveillance of the Strait (SIVE) place great emphasis on ‘detect and deter’ missions, while completely inadequate resources are given over to rescue missions and the need to save lives.

The official Interior Ministry inquiry, that opened in September, heard evidence from Juis Gutiérrez Salvador, the chief of the civil guard on Fuerteventura, who said that there were twenty-three people onboard the makeshift raft (patera) on 2 June, twelve of whom died, and that there were twenty-five aboard the raft on10 June, nine of whom died. Salvador told the inquiry that when the marine patrols approached the pateras, floating close to the coast, the cold and exhausted migrants stood up to greet the coastguards, only to pitch into the sea while the coastguards were still fifteen or twenty metres away. ‘They are very tall and, if they are not calm, they raise the centre of gravity over a very unstable surface’, Salvador told the inquiry, adding that ‘They were wearing a lot of clothing, and almost all of them had hypothermia. Their muscles were swollen from spending 14 or 15 hours in the foetal position. They sank like stones.’

Implications for the British government

What role, if any, the RAF played on 2 and 10 June, is not yet known. But we do know that the Nimrod was patrolling the 60-mile stretch of water between North Africa and the Canary Islands at the beginning of June. The RAF website, and Paul Gilbridge, a journalist from the Express newspaper provide descriptions of a Nimrod mission which involved the interception of two boats packed with ninety migrants travelling from Morocco to Lanzarote. The Express journalist describes the Nimrod ‘swooping low’ over the boats. Flt Lt Richie Williams writes of ‘open boats packed with people who immediately ducked down attempting to hide. We alerted a nearby Guardia Civil patrol boat and stayed close by in case the smugglers tried to throw people out, in which case we could have deployed life boats.’ One can only imagine what effect a military aircraft approaching in this way would have on people crammed into unsafe and rickety boats. Further questions need to be asked about Nimrod’s role, if any, on 2 and 10 June. If the Nimrod was operational, was it the RAF which passed on information to the Spanish patrol boats about the two crafts which capsized when the marine patrols approached? Was the Nimrod in the area when the boats capsized? Was it deployed to rescue the survivors? In peace time, the Nimrod has been used as a search and rescue aircraft, involved in searching for survivors and coordinating rescues. ‘The Nimrod’s sophisticated search and location capability makes it the ideal aircraft for this type of operation’, the RAF website proclaims.

Whatever the facts about 2 and 10 June, migrants continue to drown in parts of the Atlantic Ocean under intense surveillance by Operation Ulysses. While millions of Euros are spent fortifying coastlines and equipping armed vessels with the latest technology, no such resources or expertise is given to the basic requirement of saving lives. Spanish NGOs have compiled evidence to prove that civil guard vessels are not equipped to rescue survivors from capsizings and other tragedies. The NGOs accuse the civil guard of recklessly approaching these boats in certain knowledge that they will capsize as those on board panic.

Surely, it was the responsibility of the British government – which boasts about the administrative support it has given to Operation Ulysses – to ascertain the facts about the Spanish civil guards capabilities to rescue survivors of capsizings – before it embarked on Operation Ulysses?

Related links

Association of Migrant Moroccan Workers in Spain (ATIME)


Union Génral de Trabajadores (UGT)

* SIEV stands for 'suspected illegal entry vessel', X for identity unknown.
The Moroccan NGO 'Pateras de la Vida' based in Larache can be contacted at

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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