More than 700 people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea this year alone while attempting to reach Europe. This article shows how EU border agency Frontex has been complicit in the suffering and deaths of many thousands of refugees and why it cannot be allowed to continue doing so. Today, on World Refugee Day, through the international campaign #AbolishFrontex we urge the EU to end its border regime.
More than 700 people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea since the beginning of this year while attempting to reach Europe, bringing the total number of refugees and migrants who have died due to the restrictive policies of ‘Fortress Europe’ since 1993 to 44,764. This is an amount equal to the inhabitants of a small town – and the real number is likely to be much higher. These were people who drowned while crossing the Mediterranean Sea on boats, were shot at border crossings, or who lost their lives after being deported to unsafe places. They were avoidable deaths, deaths that resulted from choices made by bureaucrats, by politicians – and by members of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex.
The European Agency of Shame
What started as a small agency in Poland has ever since become one of the EU’s biggest. Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is now a key actor in enforcing the EU’s border regime. It does so by running border control operations throughout the Mediterranean region and Balkan countries, coordinating and enabling deportations, and cooperating with member states as well as third countries to increase border controls. Frontex’s border guards and other employees have reportedly and repeatedly been directly and indirectly involved in illegal pushbacks, effectively preventing refugees from making use of their right to claim asylum, and are complicit in the commitment of violence against migrants at borders and during deportations. Frontex also cooperates with and delivers trainings to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, responsible for multiple pullbacks into Libya, where migrants are held in “concentration camp-like conditions”.
And its influence and power are increasing. The budget of Frontex has grown by over 7,560% since 2005, with €5.6 billion being reserved for the agency from 2021-2027 by the European Commission. Thanks to this, it has been able to recruit an army of border guards who can own and use handguns and aims to have 10,000 guards by 2027.
In response to these developments and their potential ramifications, on 9 June this year, an international coalition consisting of more than 80 groups and organisations launched the campaign #AbolishFrontex to end the EU border regime, with direct actions across eight countries in Europe and North Africa. They presented the following list of demands:
- Abolish Frontex
- Regularise migrants
- Stop all deportations
- End detention
- Stop the militarisation of borders (and the military-industrial complex)
- Stop the surveillance of people on the move
- Empower solidarity
- Stop the EU’s role in forcing people to move
- Freedom of movement for all – end the EU border regime
Locating the root cause of inhumane border regimes
Crucially, to stop Frontex, the EU needs to stop funding it. Why? Because the cycle of violence is perpetuated as long as support for Frontex continues. But that also means changing the EU’s approach toward migration. The ever-expanding budget of Frontex symbolises the EU’s reliance on deterrence, repression, and externalisation to deal with populations it has marked as unwanted. The EU member states are fortifying Europe’s land, sea, and virtual borders instead of developing a much-needed politics that would create safe migration channels. Furthermore, by framing migration as a security issue that needs a securitised response, they avoid addressing their own involvement in the root causes of why people have to move in the first place.
One of these causes is found in the spending on arms, which totalled USD 378 billion in Europe and almost USD 2 trillion (USD 2,000,000,000,000 – an amount so big it can hardly be read) globally in 2020. Arms trade fuels wars around the planet, benefiting and lobbied for by the same companies that are also profiting from the increased militarisation of borders. The investigative research ‘Frontex Files’ has shown that the EU agency is among the institutions targeted heavily by lobbyists from the border industrial complex. This cycle – arms companies in rich countries producing weapons that displace people in poorer countries and subsequently producing security equipment that keeps the displaced people out of these very same rich countries – perpetuates violence.
Other root causes, of course, include the climate crisis, also largely caused by rich countries, unequal trade policies that increase poverty worldwide, and repercussions of (neo-)colonialism. To put it simply, Europe is rich because it exploits other parts of the world, and other parts of the world are unsafe because Europe makes them so. Abolishing Frontex would not be a gesture of benevolence, it would mean taking responsibility for the destruction of people’s homes and lives the EU is causing elsewhere. The least the EU can do is to provide shelter to those displaced.
Beyond Frontex and national security
Abolishing Frontex also means to challenge the idea that fortifying borders and blocking migration leads to increased security. This idea rests on a deliberate misunderstanding of the concept of safety and perpetuates racist and colonialist structures of power. As Arun Kundnani writes in his recent TNI publication ‘Abolish National Security’,
An abolitionist framework entails understanding that genuine security does not result from the elimination of threats but from the presence of collective well-being. It advocates building institutions that foster the social and ecological relationships needed to live dignified lives, rather than reactively identifying groups of people who are seen as threatening.
Turning Europe into a fortress cannot be the answer to the challenges of our time. Instead of enlarging Frontex, we need to tackle the root causes of the displacement of people and establish safe migration routes to Europe for those who need and those who want to move.
Let’s abolish Frontex and make death at sea history. Join the campaign: abolishfrontex.org.
Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.
About the author:
Josephine Valeske holds a MA degree in Development Studies from the ISS and a BA degree in Philosophy and Economics. She currently works for the research and advocacy organisation Transnational Institute in Amsterdam that supports the #AbolishFrontex campaign. She can be found on Twitter @jo_andolanjeevi.
Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.