More 'Frontex' Is Not the Answer to the Refugee Crisis

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More 'Frontex' Is Not the Answer to the Refugee Crisis

Rather than investing millions more in fences, patrols, and an EU Border Guard, we need the courage to accept that the policies of exclusion have failed.

Demonstration in Warsaw against Frontex, May 2015. (Photo: Celestino Arce/Demotix)

As media and politicians have declared a ‘refugee’ or ‘migration crisis’ this summer, EU Member States are scrambling for a common response to recent events. Amid attempts to redistribute refugees across EU Member States, familiar calls for strengthening the EU’s border agency Frontex resurfaced once again. Frontex is conspicuously absent from the media stories of families, women, and men taking risky journeys in the hope of reaching safety and peace, yet it is at the centre of debates about how to reshape the EU’s asylum, border, and immigration policies.

Less controversial than the reception of asylum seekers, the redistribution of refugees among Member States, or the opening of legal entry routes, demands for ‘more Frontex’ have become a common answer to a perceived need to ‘do something’ in relation to migration policy in the European Union. Similar calls have already been made: at the time of the revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, in response to the 3rd of October 2013, when at least 363 individuals lost their lives off the coast of Lampedusa, and last summer, when Italy urged ‘Frontex plus’ to take over its military-humanitarian Mare Nostrum operation in the Mediterranean.

Apart from occasionally issuing press releases on how many people have crossed into the EU irregularly which are then recited by news outlets to point to the scale of the movements we are currently witnessing, not much is seen or heard about what Frontex actually does in the present situation. Seeking answers, the Bureau of Investigate Journalism recently published the results of an investigation. It suggested that Frontex is overwhelmed, understaffed, and not as powerful as people might have thought. Again, the logical conclusion seems to be that there is a need for strengthening Frontex.

But what do the proposals currently on the table envision? How might they change EU migration and border governance? And indeed, what has Frontex been doing in this summer of migration?  

Established in 2005, Frontex was founded as a compromise between those states that wanted a fully functional European border guard (such as Germany and Italy) and those that wanted to protect their sovereignty (particularly the UK and Scandinavian countries). From the beginning it was mandated primarily with the coordination of cooperation between EU Member States. It was meant to respond to Member States’ needs and to assist them in working better together, first of all, providing services such as ‘risk analyses’, research, and trainings.

Since its establishment 10 years ago, Frontex has grown exponentially in staff numbers and budget, and has seen its mandate expanded twice. The first expansion was in 2007, to allow for the deployment of Rapid Border Intervention Teams. Then in 2011 the agency was, among other changes, allowed to own and lease equipment, and to develop and use systems to exchange information with other agencies, Member States, and the European Commission. In the 2011 amendment, Frontex also saw its obligations to respect Fundamental Rights more forcefully enshrined in its regulation, and was obliged to establish a Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights consisting of NGOs, international organisations, and EU agencies, as well as having to create the post of a Fundamental Rights Officer inside Frontex.

While Frontex was harshly criticised for failing to make sure that asylum seekers were granted access to protection in its early operations, the pressures it faced and the in-house expertise it was obliged to acquire in 2011 contributed to its emphasis on fundamental rights today. When interviewing Frontex staff members in December 2013 as part of my doctoral research, I was told that the agency could not stop or decrease irregular migration. Instead, its goal was the identification of those arriving. Frontex’s inability to stop asylum seekers was explained again in a recent hearing at the House of Lords. There, Frontex Executive Director Leggeri made clear that Frontex was bound by the Schengen Borders Code and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. In practice, this means that individuals who make a claim for international protection ought to be referred on to Member States who are to process their applications.

Being bound by EU law, Frontex is thus well aware that it is impossible to stop refugees and asylum seekers from moving to the European Union irregularly in the absence of legal entry routes. For this reason, its efforts for the future are oriented towards externalising border controls: if asylum seekers can be stopped before reaching EU external borders by third country officials, the legal obligations cited above do not apply. Frontex will send a liaison officer to Turkey before the end of the year, and is planning to create similar positions in North African countries soon.

Meanwhile, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, and Spain have built fences to do the impossible and hinder individuals from entering their territories irregularly, and Romania and the Baltic states are said to be planning the same. Soon, Europe might have more fences and walls than it had during the Cold War. Already then, walls did not stop people from moving, but caused violence, death, and suffering. The same applies today: Hungary already arrested at least 519 individuals for attempting to scale its recently completed fence, and used water cannons and tear gas in an attempt to keep refugees away from it.

Seeking to enter the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, dozens have died over the last 10 years, including at least 15 last year alone. Seeking to overcome the formidable barriers the EU has set up around itself, at least 6,152 individuals have lost their lives from January 2014 until today, and far more than 20,000 deaths have been documented since 1988.

As a continent, we should remember the joy and celebrations as the walls of the Cold War tumbled and fell; the futility with which these walls attempted to stop people from moving; and the honour bestowed upon those who helped refugees cross borders despite fences, walls, and risk of death.

An increasing number of initiatives are problematising the arbitrariness of celebrating ‘escape agents’ back then, and criminalising ‘smugglers’ today: in a month, a ‘smuggling conference’ will explore the historical connections and obvious contradictions in the treatment of those who help refugees cross borders. And this summer, hundreds of EU citizens have decided to take a stance themselves, travelling to the Western Balkans and offering lifts in their cars to Germany or Austria. Organised convoys left from Vienna, Leipzig, Berlin, and Ljubljana, and many others just drove down by themselves.

The EU’s answer to the ‘crisis’, however, is far from the soul-searching and historical perspective that different activists and citizens propose. Seemingly unperturbed by the failure of these policies, Member States seek to strengthen and reinforce border controls, while providing a modest and temporary redistribution of refugees away from Greece and Italy.

Frontex’s budget is said to be raised by 54%, up to €176 million in 2016. After already tripling Frontex’s resources for its operations in Italy and Greece in April this year, this means a further substantial increase in the agency’s budget. The agency will also be allowed to hire 60 additional staff members, and there is talk about increasing its powers once more.  

Commission President Juncker recently called for the transformation of Frontex into a fully operational European Border Guard, which would mean a radical transformation of the agency. In this scenario, Frontex as a new EU police force might take over control of the external borders of the European Union, ensuring common standards of border guarding throughout.

Better policing, however, is not the answer to hundreds of thousands of refugees who have made their way to Europe this year. As noted already, asylum seekers have a right to have their claims processed when seeking safety in the European Union. And looking at externalization as a ‘solution’ to Europe’s ‘crisis’, as Frontex and other EU actors do, is similarly short-cited and cynical. At the moment, over 86% of refugees worldwide are staying in developing countries. In Lebanon, 25% of the population by now are refugees. In Europe by contrast, the people who have arrived thus far constitute 0.11% of the population within EU countries. That arrivals would increase strongly and are likely to continue to do so was clear to those observing migration and mobility to the EU for a while – first and foremost, Frontex. Member States decided not to prepare for these increases, and until now seem focused on finding short-term, ad-hoc patches to a situation that needs political leadership and long-term vision instead.

While Frontex is profiting from this ‘crisis’ through increases in staff, budget, and potentially powers, we should bear in mind that this is first and foremost a crisis in governance and solidarity; as well as a crisis for those who are risking their health and lives on perilous journeys. As Madeleine Rees recently argued on 50.50, these individuals are made the playballs of Member States’ political games.

‘More Frontex’ cannot be the answer to this crisis. Rather than investing millions more in fences, patrols, and an EU Border Guard, we need the courage to accept that the policies of exclusion have failed. In April this year, UN Special Representative for Human Rights François Crépeau reminded the public in an interview that ‘Einstein has defined madness as repeating the same thing and expecting a different result.’ After more than two decades of attempting to ‘seal’ EU borders, of increasing Frontex’s funding and powers, building new fences, and making it ever more difficult for the poor, marginalised, and persecuted to reach EU territory, it is time to realise that this is not working. Rather than ‘more Frontex’, we need policies and practices that recognize the humanity of those seeking safety and livelihood for themselves and their families and allow them to do so also here in Europe, rather than keeping them ‘away’ from ‘us’ at all costs.

Nina Perkowski

Nina Perkowski is completing a PhD in Politics at the University of Edinburgh, focusing on EU external border controls. She has volunteered with migrants and asylum seekers in Germany and Italy, and spent three months monitoring migrants’ rights for borderline-europe in Sicily in 2012.

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