Coordinated by Roberta PACE, Alain PARANT

 

Frontex, the Euro-Mediterranean border and the paradoxes of humanitarian rhetoric

Giuseppe Campesi

Università degli Studi di Bari ”Aldo Moro”

 

Abstract: The article explores the ambiguous dialectic between the technocratic ideology of risk management and the recurrent call for emergency measures which characterizes Euro-Mediterranean border control policies, showing how Frontex has ultimately succeeded in capitalising on the recurring cry to humanitarian emergencies coming from some Member Countries. Far from seeing its legitimacy undermined as a risk management agency that should predict and prevent potential migratory crisis, it has incorporated the emergency rethoric into its official communication, making it a legitimating tool for a steady expansion of its role, prerogatives and resources to the detriment of alternative actors in migration policy. This reproduces the paradoxes of a humanitarian policy which is intended at protecting the bare life of migrants and asylum seekers, while violating their fundamental rights to escape and find asylum elsewhere.

Keywords: Border control; Frontex; Risk; Emergency; Humanitarian policies

 

1.       INTRODUCTION

The political consequences unleashed by the tragedy of Lampedusa on October 3, 2013, are an example of a typical dynamic of that “migration diplomacy” which has been characterising European politics for several years. The States of the European southern shore are indeed cyclically ready to invoke yet another emergency in order to get material and financial support by the EU, invariably clashing with the resistance of northern countries that, recalling the rich financial compensations that southern countries receive each year for their role as EU external border, invite them to a more systematic and less emergency-driven approach to the issue of border control.

Immediately after the Lampedusa tragedy, Italy invoked the EU intervention, obtaining that during the Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting in Brussels scheduled for October 9, 2013, its request for material and financial support was discussed. Italy’s Minister of Interior, Angelino Alfano, called for the intervention of the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States (Frontex) to support the vigorous initiatives that Italy was about to put in place by launching the operation called Mare nostrum. «The issue of immigration cannot lie solely on Italy», underlined Alfano[1]. The Italian diplomatic offensive was re-launched a few days later, on the occasion of the European Council scheduled for 24 and 25 October, when Italy’s Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, addressed his European colleagues with the request of strengthening the solidarity principle in the management of migration flows, asking for a «change of attitude» on the part of the EU[2]. Positive signals were at the same time coming from other EU institutions. The European Commissioner Cecilia Malmström had been on a visit to Lampedusa immediately after the tragedy, and was supporting the Italian claims to the EU Council, proposing to strengthen Frontex activities in the Mediterranean region. Meanwhile, the European Parliament adopted a bipartisan resolution in which, among other things, it was hoped that the tragedy of Lampedusa could become «a turning point» of the European policy on immigration[3].

The results of these calls for a change have not been really remarkable. The conclusions adopted by the European Council on 24 and 25 October, hailed as a success of Italian diplomacy, merely grant supplementary financial aid to Italy, calling for a strengthening of Frontex activities in the central Mediterranean region[4]. The European Commission moved in the same direction, granting Frontex with additional funding of more than € 7.9 million in order to strengthen its patrol activities in the Strait of Sicily[5]. This is not a big leap if one considers that the agency has been operating in the central Mediterranean region since 2007, when the joint operations named NAUTILUS and HERMES were launched for the first time, and that since then the days of operational activity in the region have passed from 102 in 2007 to 350 in 2012, with an increase in spending of 196% (from € 7,183,000 to € 14,146,000)[6].

As on other occasions, the push and pull between southern European countries and EU institutions has not led to a rethinking of the closed border policies which are forcing thousands of people to grope adventurous trips in order to reach the countries in which they hope to find refuge, or more simply a better life. On the contrary, it has led to further hardening of border control policies, increasing the dangers faced by migrants and potential asylum seekers. The Lampedusa tragedy has not led to the change in the EU attitude which had been advocated by Italy’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta, while the EU has continued to replicate the pattern of migration policy which had been adopted since the birth of the Schengen area. It is a policy that leaves few openings for regular migration, forcing foreigners to rough paths in an attempt to circumvent the “barrier” erected to protect the borders of Europe. Those who benefit from this perverse “migration diplomacy” are security bureaucracies, which cyclically reinforce their position in the wide arena of migration management agencies, getting new material and financial resources and nurturing their public visibility as the legitimate and appropriate solution to the recurring “migration emergencies”.

 

2.        FRONTEX BETWEEN RISK MANAGEMENT AND EMERGENCY LOGIC

 

The history of the EU agency Frontex, whose intervention was repeatedly invoked on occasion of the October 2013 Lampedusa migrant shipwreck, is emblematic. Its origins lie in the securitisation of the EU external border management that accompanied the birth of the Schengen area, whose cornerstones were set in the course of technical meetings hegemonised by security bureaucrats, during which representatives of the various ministries of Internal Affairs discussed the necessary flanking security measures that should have accompanied the birth of the area of free circulation[7]. Even when, with the incorporation of the Schengen Agreement into EU law in 1999, the proposals in the sense of creating a truly European border police became more explicit, Member States always showed a degree of reluctance in yielding their sovereignty, lowering the profile of the Commission’s proposals on the issue[8]. It was only with the terrorist attacks of 2001 and 2004 and the prospect of the further EU enlargement eastward, that the project to create a body responsible for the joint management of external border was decisively launched. The events of the early twenty-first century imprinted an unprecedented sense of urgency to the issue of migration control, strengthening the arguments in favour of the creation of a mechanism for the integrated EU border management, which was mainly advocated by southern EU Member States[9] [10].

Despite the creation of Frontex can be read as the typical outcome of a process of migration securitisation, the result was certainly disappointing when compared with the size and powers conferred on the Department of Homeland Security, which was created in the United States in 2002 as a response to the demand for a more effective federal security policy[11]. Frontex was a compromise between a more decisive push in the direction of the communitarisation of border control policies, with everything that went with it in terms of financial burden-sharing, which made ​​use of the emergency rhetoric fuelled by southern Member States, and the resistances of those Member States who did not want to yield their sovereignty in such a symbolic field as border control, pushing for the creation of a purely technical agency, provided with a reduced operational profile; an agency whose main task should have been to stimulate the cooperation between Member States by reducing transaction costs and contributing to the construction of a set of shared standards in the field of border control policies.

Frontex was therefore born in the context of an ambiguous dialectic between the technocratic ideology of risk management and the recurrent call for emergency measures. A dialectic that has accompanied its first years of activity and profoundly affected the profile of an agency oscillating between the intelligence-driven approach that inspires its mandate and is constantly referred to by the agency’s institutional communication, and a more emergency-driven approach towards which the agency is often prompt by some Member States. The history of the joint operations at the southern European borders, which have always been the agency’s core business[12], is particularly illustrative of the dialectic between risk and emergency inspiring Frontex action and of the ways in which the agency has been able to capitalise the recurring appeal to emergency measures coming from southern EU Member States.

The first, and for a long time the most expensive joint operation at sea borders was HERA, launched in 2006 to patrol the Canary Islands at the express request of the Spanish Government that called on the EU financial and technical support to manage what was described as an exceptional and unpredictable inflow of migrants from the north-western coast of Africa[13]. The emergency call was an opportunity to test an operational model that would later have been replicated in all other joint operations at sea, to the point that the agency’s public communication itself describes HERA as the truly beginning of the operational activities coordinated by Frontex[14]. According to the agency’s figures, the joint operation cost, which was refinanced several times during 2006, amounted to € 6.2 million and “produced” more than 22,000 apprehensions of foreigners attempting to cross the EU border[15]. The emergency became very soon permanent and, in 2007, HERA was transformed into an ordinary operation, the first link in the chain of controls that Frontex would have deployed from the Atlantic to the Aegean Sea to encircle the southern borders of Europe.

Over the following years, Frontex seemed able to give some stability to its operational activities on the southern borders, organising what was described as the European Patrol Network. This was articulated into several quasi-permanent joint operations conducted in the area of the Atlantic border (HERA), Western Mediterranean region (MINERVA, INDALO), central Mediterranean region (HERMES, NAUTILUS), Eastern Mediterranean region and south-eastern land border (POSEIDON). The agency’s risk analysis offered the strategic framework within which it would have planned its operational activities, nourishing the reassuring feeling that, finally, the European border police will not have been caught unprepared any more by migratory crisis. The emergency logic would however soon reappear again.

Despite all Frontex reports were signaling the gradual move eastward of migration routes following the closure of the Central Mediterranean route due to the agreements between Italy and Libya signed in 2008, the agency was ready to endorse the request of support coming from the Greek Government that, in 2010, invoked Frontex intervention denouncing an exceptional and unforeseeable increase in the migratory pressure at the Greek-Turkish border.[16] The intervention in Greece seemed to be the pretext that the agency needed to test its new rapid intervention tool called RABIT in a country like Greece, considered unreliable in managing its borders. Instead of planning ordinary measures using the information made available by the agency’s risk analysis, Frontex opted for an emergency action that, as in the case of HERA some years earlier, was later made permanent by incorporating it within the framework of the joint operation POSEIDON Land, which had been operating at the Greek-Turkish border since 2006. This last joint operation, which until 2010 was considered a small chapter of the wider POSEIDON Sea operation, became for the first time a permanent action, with a sudden increase in the number of its operational days and of its costs.

Source: Author’s elaboration on Frontex data.

The RABIT joint operation, which lasted 121 days costing more than € 169,000 was presented as a great success by Frontex 2010 official report, which enthusiastically stated that “between the first deployments in November 2010, until the end of the operation in March 2011, a reduction of 76% (in terms of irregular migrants crossing the border) was recorded”[17] (p. 24). Despite the initial enthusiasm, the number of illegal crossings recorded at the land border with Turkey underwent a further increase in 2011, exceeding 55,000[18]. The added value of Frontex emergency operation in Greece did not seem therefore to reside in its effectiveness in limiting the inflow of irregular migrants, but rather in strengthening the agency’s presence in a section of the EU border still poorly patrolled, establishing at the same time diplomatic relations with a reluctant partner like Turkey, with which a cooperation agreement in December 2013 was finally signed[19].

The same logic of strengthening the agency’s role seemed at work during Frontex intervention in the central Mediterranean region in 2011. The joint operations NAUTILUS and HERMES, that had been active in the region since 2007, have had many ups and downs because of repeated clashes between host States (Italy and Malta) with respect to the disembarkation obligations of migrants rescued at sea. While between 2007 and 2009 the number of operational days was already rather small, the approval in 2010 of an amendment to the Schengen Border Code, which regulated the obligations of States participating in joint operations at sea coordinated by Frontex[20], led to a breaking point causing the suspension of the activities in the region due to the retirement of the host States. For this reason in 2011, albeit in the context of difficult diplomatic relations with the then Italian Government that was pushing for an explicit declaration of a state of emergency and the consequent activation of the mechanism of temporary protection[21], European institutions agreed to strengthen their presence in the region, re-launching the joint operations interrupted in 2010 as a response to a new “migratory crisis” triggered by political upheavals in Northern-Africa. According to Frontex figures, in 2011 alone more than 64,000 foreigners were seized in an attempt to cross the European border in the central Mediterranean region, while HERMES was operational from February to December 2011, assuming for the first time the traits of a permanent joint operation[22].

Last months’ sharp increase in landfalls in Sicily seems once again to have caught unprepared the EU agency that, according to its official mandate, should provide tools to predict migration pressure trends at the borders. Despite the escalation of the Syrian crisis throughout 2012 and the substantial State failure in Libya after NATO military intervention in 2011, the agency’s report published at the end of 2012 did not notify any particular risk to the central Mediterranean route, suggesting no strategy to deal with the possibility of an increase in migratory pressure in the area[23]. Only after the October 2013 tragedy, and while the Italian Government was already crying at another “humanitarian emergency”, Frontex issued a press release containing an update on the situation at the central Mediterranean border. We were then informed that from January to September 2013 migrants intercepted in the region were more than 31,000 and, as if the agency had to justify the need for new emergency measures and more material resources in order to tackle the situation, it was stressed that “it is noteworthy that the migratory pressure over the summer months of 2013 was comparable to the same period in 2011”[24]. A few days later Frontex was granted additional funding to strengthen its presence in the central Mediterranean region.

Once again, the emergency logic prevailed on planning, allowing the agency to legitimately claim yet another increase in its technical and financial resources. Although contrasting the reassuring message of situational awareness that the agency try to launch with its public communication, the emergency approach that characterises Southern EU Member States’ policy seems to be functional at a constant strengthening of Frontex role and legitimation. Over the years Frontex has thus become a crucial actor in the context of this authentic political “border play”[25] staged by the countries most affected by the inflow of irregular migrants. This is reflected in the fact that the agency’s official rhetoric has finally incorporated the frame of the “humanitarian emergency” that countries like Spain, Italy and Greece are periodically resorting to.

 

3.       FRONTEX HUMANITARIAN RHETORIC

Despite the conflicts that have sometimes characterised its relations with certain Member States, Frontex has finally built itself as a legitimate actor in steering the discussion on the issue of border control and illegal immigration. It offers pre-packed rhetoric and a whole semantic repertoire to the public which also national governments’ institutional communication draws more and more from. The dialectic between risk and emergency driving the agency’s action during its first years of life is now perfectly reflected in its official communication.

Since its inception, Frontex has made recourse to a discursive rhetoric typical of security agencies. A rhetoric topped by the use of verbs that explicitly refer to the military jargon and adjectives that emphasise the illegitimate, threatening and thus “criminal” character of irregular migration. The use of military metaphors was however mediated by the use of the bureaucratic lexicon of efficiency which is typical of the so called new public management. Frontex describes itself as an intelligence agency whose primary mission is to identify, analyse and manage risks that gather at the borders of Europe.  Resorting to the technocratic rhetoric of risk management, it has been in some way able to belittle the para-military nature that, especially at sea borders, characterise its action, averting public opinion by any reference to the use of coercive measures, such as naval interdictions on the high sea or the administrative detention of migrants[26]. The technocratic language has thus neutralised the political and ethical implications of the operational strategies adopted by the agency, so much so that surveillance technologies, maritime interdiction forces and “reception centres” surrounded by walls and security devices can be presented to public opinion by side-lining their impact over the lives and rights of migrants. At the same time the agency’s operational strategies may be represented as carefully planned operations, triggered by technical risk assessments that have nothing to do with the diplomatic relations between the European Union and its Member Countries.

As a result of the violent criticism that accompanied some of the agency’s joint operations, EU institutions have sought in recent years to sharpen Frontex humanitarian profile. References to human rights greatly increased in the agency’s official documents, while cooperation agreements were signed with the UNHCR (June 2008) and the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (May 2010) in order to develop the teaching of international human rights law and asylum law in its police training programmes. Frontex obligations with respect to the principle of non-refoulement were formally stated by the European Council with the aforementioned decision of April 2010 amending the Schengen border code, while the last reform of the regulation establishing the agency, approved in 2011, greatly strengthened the agency’s bonds with respect to human rights and asylum law (Regulation (EU) No. 1168/2011).

In parallel with these institutional developments, Frontex explicitly securitarian discursive patterns was incorporated and redefined in the context of a humanitarian rhetoric that has begun to qualify its official communication. If migrants were originally mentioned in official speeches and documents only as “risks” that the agency was called upon to neutralise, they are now increasingly framed as “victims” in need of protection[27]. This process of victimisation of migrants is based on two main discursive strategies: on the one hand it makes reference to the transnational networks of human traffickers and smugglers exploiting migrants and endangering their lives; on the other hand it refers to naturalistic metaphors suggesting the idea of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe. In both cases, the intervention of a typical security agency like Frontex is justified as an adequate response to the protection needs of migrants, who thanks to the providential intervention of military and police forces are protected from the dangers of “clandestine” border crossings.

The integration of the humanitarian rhetoric by Frontex produces two main effects. Firstly, it hides the violations of migrants’ rights generated by the operating model inspiring Frontex operations at sea borders; a model which is basically aimed at preventing potential migrants from leaving their point of departure by acting well beyond the European borders, on the high sea or in third countries’ territorial waters. This leads to the paradox of qualifying as “humanitarian” operations that prevent people to exercise their fundamental right to emigrate and their right to seek asylum, keeping them at distance from the borders of those countries where they would be able to find protection[28]. Secondly, it tends to de-legitimise, or at least to reduce the space in public communication obtained by alternative definitions of the issue proposed by other international actors, such as non-governmental organisations dealing with the protection of human rights of migrants and asylum seekers, who were often very critical with respect to Frontex action. By exploiting their semantic repertoire and bending it to its purposes, Frontex neutralises the critical potential of humanitarian rhetoric capitalising from it in terms of ethical and political legitimacy of his actions. In the event of a new “humanitarian emergency” at the EU borders, Frontex is now the first agency to be entitled to action while other authentically humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR, IOM, Save the Children or the Red Cross are relegated only to secondary, collateral and subordinate positions.

 

4.       CONCLUSIONS

Frontex has ultimately succeeded in capitalising on the recurring cry to humanitarian emergencies coming from some Member Countries. Far from seeing its legitimacy undermined as a risk management agency that should predict and prevent potential migratory crisis, it has incorporated humanitarian rhetoric in its official communication, making it a legitimating tool for a steady expansion of its role, of its prerogatives and of its resources to the detriment of alternative actors in migration policy. In Frontex official reports and speeches all joint operations at sea borders are now justified on eminently humanitarian grounds, to the point that the agency has begun to report data relating to its activities in terms of migrants “rescued at sea”, rather than in terms of “apprehended migrants”, to which it initially referred. Recent EU Commission communication on the situation at the Mediterranean borders can thus rhetorically emphasise the humanitarian role played by Frontex, illustrating in parallel the panoply of military and surveillance devices put in place for the defence of the southern EU border[29], without this leading to suspect a schizophrenic attitude of the European institutions, as in the Commission’s reasoning to avoid migrants’ departure or intercept and reject them on the high sea being equivalent to save their lives. This reproduces the paradoxes of a humanitarian policy which is intended at protecting the bare life of migrants and asylum seekers, while violating their fundamental rights to escape and find asylum elsewhere.

 

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[1]Quoted in Il Sole 24 Ore, October 9, 2013.

[2]Quoted in Il Sole 24 Ore, October 24, 2013.

[3]European Parliament, Resolution of 23 October 2013 on migratory flows in the Mediterranean, with particular attention to the tragic events of Lampedusa, 2013/2827(RSP), 2013.

[4]European Council, Council Conclusions, Brussels 25 October 2013, EUCO 169/13.

[5]European Commission, Comunication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the work of the Task Force Mediterranean, Brussels, 4.12.2013, COM(2013)869final.

[6] Author’s elaboration on Frontex data.

[7]Andrew, NEAL,”Securitization and Risk at the EU Border: The Origins of FRONTEX”, Journal of Common Market Studies,  XL, 2, 2009, pp. 333-356.Rens, VAN MUNSTER, Securitizing Immigration. The politics of Risk in the EU, 2009, Palgrave MacMillan, London.

[8]Peter, HOBBING, Integrated Border Management at the EU Level, in Balzacq Thierry, Carrera Sergio (eds.), Security versus Freedom? A Challenge for Europe’s Future, 2006, Ashgate, Aldershot, pp. 155-181. Peter, HOBBING, The management of the EU’s external borders from the Custom Union to Frontex and e-borders, in    Guild Elspeth, Carrera Sergio, Eggenschwiler Alejandro, The area of Freedom, Security and Justice ten tears on. Successes and future challenges under the Stockholm Programme, 2010, Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels, pp. 63-72.

Jörg, MONAR, The project of a European Border Guard: Origins, Models and Prospects in the Context of the EU’s Integrated External Border Management, in Caparini Marina, Marenin Otwin (eds.), Borders and Security Governance. Managing Borders in a Globalizaded World, 2006, Verlag, Zurich, pp. 193-208.

[9]Sarah, LÉONARD, ”EU border security and migration into the European Union: FRONTEX and securitisation through practices”, European Security, XIX, 2, 2009, pp. 231-254. Sarah, LÉONARD, ”The Creation of FRONTEX and the Politics of Institutionalisation in the EU External Borders Policy”, Journal of Contemporary European Research, V, 3, 2010, pp. 371-388. Matthieu, CHILLAUD, “Frontex as the Institutional Reification of the Link between Security, Migration and Border Management”, Contemporary European Studies, 2, 2012, pp. 45-61.

[10] It should be borne in mind that the two European Council meetings which have been crucial for the birth of Frontex took place in Seville (2002) and Thessaloniki (2003).

[11]Andrew, NEAL,”Securitization and Risk at the EU Border:..cit.”.

[12]Over the past six years, the share devoted to operational activities fluctuated between 65% and 70% of the overall agency’s budget. If we consider only the operations carried out at sea borders, the share has averaged 38% between 2006 and 2012 (Author’s elaboration on Frontex data).

[13]Sergio, CARRERA, ”The EU Border Management Strategy. FRONTEX and the Challenges of Irregular Immigration in the Canary Islands”, CEPS Working Document, No. 261, 2007.

[14]Frontex, Beyond the Frontiers. Frontex: The First Five Years, 2010, Warsaw.

[15]Frontex, General Report 2006, Warsaw.

[16]Migrants intercepted at the Greek-Turkish land border raised from about 11,000 in 2009 to more than 49,000 in 2010. Frontex, Annual Risk Analysis 2011, Warsaw.

[17]Frontex, General Report 2010, Warsaw.

[18]Frontex, Annual Risk Analysis, 2012, Warsaw.

[19]Andrew, BURRIDGE, ”The ‘Added Value’ of RABITs: Frontex, Emergency Measures and Integrated Border Management at the External Borders of the European Union”, RISC Consortium Working Papers, n. 1, 2012.

[20]European Council, Council decision of 26 April 2010 supplementing the Schengen Borders Code as regards the surveillance of the sea external borders in the context of operational cooperation coordinated by the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, 2010/252/EU.

[21]Giuseppe, CAMPESI, ”The Arab Spring and the Crisis of the European Border Regime. Manufacturing the emergency in the Lampedusa Crisis”, RSCAS Working Papers, 59, 2011.

[22] Frontex, General Report 2011, Warsaw.

[23] Frontex, General Report 2012, Warsaw.

[24]Frontex, Press release: Update on Central Mediterranean Route, 4 october 2013, Warsaw (http://frontex.europa.eu/news/update-on-central-mediterranean-route-5wQPyW).

[25]Paolo, CUTTITTA, Lo spettacolo del confine. Lampedusa tra produzione e messa in scena della frontiera, 2012, Mimesis, Milano.

[26]Karina, HORSTI, ”Humanitarian Discourse Legitimating Migration Control: FRONTEX Public Communication”, Migrations: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Springer, 2012, pp. 297-308.

[27]Nina, PERKOWSKI, ”A normative assessment of the aims and practices of the European border management agency Frontex”, Refugee Studies Centre, Working Paper Series, n. 81, 2012, University of Oxford. Karina, HORSTI, ”Humanitarian Discourse Legitimating Migration...cit.”.

[28]Seline, TREVISANUT, ”L’Europa e l’immigrazione clandestina via mare: FRONTEX e il diritto internazionale”, Il Diritto dell’Unione Europea, 2, 2008, pp. 367-388. Annelise, BALDACCINI, Extraterritorial Border Controls in the EU: The Role of Frontex in Operations at Sea in Ryan Bernard, Mitsilegas Valsamis (eds.), Extraterritorial Immigration Control. Legal Challenges, 2010, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Leiden, pp. 229-256. Anna, LIGUORI, Novella, RICCIUTI , ”Frontex ed il rispetto dei diritti umani nelle operazioni congiunte alle frontiere esterne dell’Unione europea”, Diritti Umani e Diritto Internazonale, 6, 2012, pp. 539-567.

[29]European Commission, Comunication from the Commission to the European Parliament..cit.