The so-called “migration crisis” has brought about several tragic drownings in what has become, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “the most deadly stretch of water”, the Mediterranean. Too many people seeking shelter in the states of the European Union have not survived their perilous journey, due to the poor conditions of the boats and dinghies used and the ignoble treatment received by their smugglers. In the meantime, a speechless European Union has overseen these deaths, incapable to respond in an effective and measured manner. The frequency with which the drowning of migrants occurs near the shores of our countries should leave us all appalled. These tragedies have thus become a verdict, that screams guilty towards the failed migration regime implemented by the EU.
An instrument that has gained increased prominence in the Union’s migration regime has been the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, better known as FRONTEX. The agency was established in 2004 with the purpose of “coordination of intelligence-driven operational co-operation at EU level to strengthen security at the external borders”. FRONTEX thus cooperates with individual member states in joint operations that can last for short periods or become permanent. Moreover, recently Member States have increasingly requested FRONTEX cooperation in situations of “migration emergencies”, as in the case of Greece and Spain. Despite its growing reach, the Agency presents many problems and exemplifies the fallacies embedded in the EU migration regime more broadly.
FRONTEX self-describes as “an intelligence agency whose primary mission is to identify, analyse and manage risks that gather at the borders of Europe”. Portraying itself as an agency devoted to the very technocratic task of risk management, FRONTEX has been able to successfully disguise to most its paramilitary nature and its frequent use of coercive measures. In truth, the Agency has manifestly prioritised law enforcement over the protection of migrants. FRONTEX’s tasks can be identified as two separate objectives. The first one is to control the movement of people before they get near the locus in need of protection, namely the shores of the Member States. Didier Bigo describes this process as “a proactive logic which anticipates the risks and the threats, locating the potential adversaries even before they have any consciousness of being a threat to others”. The second task is to contrast and compare this “risk” to the capabilities of the security apparatus on the Member States borders, managing migration “effectively”. Commentators have underlined how paying attention to the language of security used by FRONTEX officers is telling, as it shows that according to the rationale of the agency the entities in need of protection are the Member States, rather than the migrants.
This has led to situations in which refugees with a rightful claim for asylum have not been able to request it, or in which migrants have been kept in detention centres under inhumane conditions. A case in point here has been the scandal of the migrant detention centres in Greece, openly condemned by Human Rights Watch in the Report “The EU’s Dirty Hands”. HRW has denounced not only the Greek government for its inability to ensure humane conditions in its detention centres, but also FRONTEX for having cooperated with Greece through the deployment of a Rapid Border Intervention Team (RABIT) although the unacceptable state of the detention centres was known to its officers.
The precedence placed on enforcement overprotection is not the only problematic question raised by FRONTEX. The agency has also been criticised by many who believe that migrants rescued at sea or caught trying to enter a Member State’s territory illegally should be assisted by humanitarian agencies such as Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) or the Red Cross. Accusing NGOs of collaborating with smugglers has been a used and abused rhetorical weapon of far-right politicians to justify the discourse against migration. It is however dubious how providing humanitarian assistance to individuals in precarious conditions, stranded at sea or just landed on the shore of a country that often does not welcome them, could be classified as aiding human traffickers.
Indeed, despite the recent use of more humanitarian rhetoric, FRONTEX is anything like a humanitarian agency. Tellingly, the Agency considers migrants a “risk” to the European borders and treat them as sources of information to find out about smugglers rather than human beings in need of protection. Consequently, FRONTEX fuels the broader flaw of the EU’s migration regime: the fact that the help given to people fleeing from fragile and insecure states is inconsistent and subjected to the alleged security considerations of the EU’s Member States.
It is beyond doubt that the entire migration regime put in place by the EU needs to be reformed to guarantee the rights of those in need of protection. There is undeniably a need to reconsider and rebalance the picture in Mediterranean states that face the sea, such as Italy, Spain and Greece, and consequently encounter migration on a daily basis, and in Member States that possess the “luxury” of not bordering the sea, and thus think migration is not “their problem”. It is also necessary to remould policies of inclusion, since the EU should seek to provide a safe shelter for the people who need it, not a hostile environment.
These policies, however, should be subsequent to what comes before. The starting point should be that managing migration cannot start with deaths at sea. These deaths go against any principle of humanity, and any value the EU claims to stand for. If the EU fails to reform in this sense, sceptics who claim that the EU is hypocritical at best will be proven right. The Human Rights Council and other entities at the UN level have reported time after time how the EU’s approach towards migration is ineffective and incoherent. Researchers, activists and citizens are dismayed at the thought of waking up one more day to the news of a new tragic drowning on their shores.
Since FRONTEX is the EU’s most powerful instrument to tackle irregular migration, a full-fledged reformation of this organization should be a much-needed priority for the EU. Indeed, if changes are not implemented, deaths in the Mediterranean will rightfully come to haunt the European soul in the forthcoming future.
The author is not a member of The Radius and their views may not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation.