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  • Writer's pictureEsther Eumann

Frontex – a photo competition gone wrong

A recent photo competition by Frontex can easily be dismissed as a failed PR campaign, but points to more essential problems in how the EU views migrants and migration. By looking at processes of securitisation at the EU level, it becomes evident just how ill-placed Frontex’ competition is.

‘9 May is Europe Day, a celebration of peace and unity across the EU’–and it was also the deadline of a photo competition organised by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, better known as Frontex. On the occasion of Europe Day, Frontex asked its officers and operational staff to submit photos in the categories ‘Cooperation with national authorities’, ‘Frontier landscapes’ and ‘A helping hand at the border’ – these could for example be the ‘beautiful view from a patrol boat’.

Frontex is also the agency that has recently made headlines for its alleged involvement in illegal pushbacks of migrants together with the Greek border police in the Balkans and on the Mediterranean Sea. It is currently under investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) over allegations of misconduct, harassment and fraud. These allegations have resulted in the European Parliament deciding to postpone the approval of the 2019 Frontex budget. Given these serious allegations Frontex could not have picked a worse time to improve its image through a photo competition, which asked staff to post photos of a ‘sunset over the field during a land patrol or how European solidarity works in practice

Several NGOs campaigning for the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers including Sea-Watch International, Europe Must Act and #leavenonoebehind felt the same, and condemned the photo competition as a contest of shame. Europe Must Act asked their followers to pick a photo that more accurately reflects the situation of borders and share it on their social media using the hashtags #contestofshame and #stopfrontex amongst others. These photos depicted how refugees coming to Europe have experienced the EU’s border agency, including accounts of torture and violence. Frontex has not commented on the criticism of its photo competition. Nevertheless, the serious allegations directed towards Frontex demand a critical examination of the EU agency, which we seek to do in this article.

Best photo from Frontex in the category “Frontier landscapes”.

Post proposed by NGOs for the category of “a helping hand at the border”.

Who or what is Frontex?

Frontex was founded in 2004 as the ‘European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union’. It is an EU agency, independent from the European Commission, the Parliament and the European Council. Based in Warsaw, the agency has three main fields of action (1) Analysis, (2) Coordination and (3) Support. Specific tasks include, for example, the creation of risk analysis reports and to connect national border guard authorities with industry and research. Additionally, the organisation coordinates joint operations between different Member State authorities, third countries and other agencies. Furthermore, Frontex helps with the training of border guards, organises joint return operations1 and supports Member States in case of emergency – starting in 2021 with its own operational staff. 

Over the few last years, and especially since the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, Frontex’s budget and responsibilities have been growing rapidly. This is because Frontex was perceived to be mostly ineffective during the crisis, as it relied too much on voluntary contributions by the Member States. In 2016, the agency consequently received a much broader mandate, with extended powers for example in the field of cooperation with third countries and the introduction of its own operational staff. In the new 2021-2027 EU budget, Frontex will be allocated a record amount of €5.6 billion (€5,600,000,000). In the absence of other more substantial reforms of the European Asylum System – for example a reform of the Dublin-system2, a fair distribution mechanism, or the strengthening of legal migration to the EU – giving more money and responsibilities to Frontex seems to be one of the few measures the EU Member States actually agree on. However, some NGOs claim that this extension of responsibilities has come at the expense of the human rights of refugees. Frontex has played an important role in ‘securitising’ migrants, a process during which irregular migration gets increasingly conflated with transborder crime. 

Securitisation of migrants

Securitisation is an elite-driven process by which a security actor, such as a politician, declares an object, in this case migrants, an existential threat to a particular audience for example to secure an election. This process is hereafter referred to as a securitising move. The word existential is important, because it moves the discussion from a ‘normal’ political space to a ‘securitarised’ space. In this ‘securitised’ space, the securitarised object (migrants) can only be discussed in relation to concerns about national security, thus legitimising the use of extraordinary means against this ‘threat’. The potential for constructive discussion about normal policy responses, on the other hand, is limited, if not completely halted. If irregular migration is seen to be existential threat to the European identity or values (these discourses are often racialized, nationalistic and gendered), then talking about the possible benefits that irregular migration could offer no longer seems like a viable option. Neither is seeing migrants and refugees as individuals with their own stories. The language in which migrants and refugees are often discussed by the media or politicians adds to this dehumanisation. David Shariatmadarni wrote an insightful article about why we have to stop referring to migrants as ‘swarms’, ‘tidal waves’ or ‘floods’ – naturalising and thus dehumanising language.

To securitise a ‘threat’ (migrants), the audience (citizens) which the security actor (politicians) is  trying to address has to recognise the identified object (migrants) as an existential threat. This seems to have been the case looking at recent Eurobarometer polls, where managing immigration sits comfortably in the top five priorities of EU citizens. 

Frontex is an extremely important securitising actor – but it is not the only one. Since the 1980s and the start of Schengen3, persons entering the EU from third countries have often been regarded as a ‘security threat’. Over time, the EU has developed a network of securitising actors from Europol and Eurojust to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). Unlike security theorists from the ‘Copenhagen School who mostly regard securitisation as a speech act4, Sarah Léonard and Christian Kaunert argue that securitisation can also occur through more concrete actions. In the case of Frontex, these actions can include, amongst others, risk analysis reports, para-military joint operations, return operations and data surveillance. Rather than focussing on saving lives at sea, these practices aim at monitoring and deterring migrants. Using practices and policy responses common in the field of organised transnational and cross-border crime, the mere act of irregular migration is framed as a criminal offence, though it is not.

Securitisation is not a one-way street however. Through a process of desecuritisation, objects can be removed from the security framework and downgraded to a non-threatening level. One of the desecuritising practices in the case of migrants can be to counter the language of ‘threat’ from a human rights perspective. The European Parliament is one actor that has utilised a humanitarian narrative most actively, complimented by several specify the kind of NGOS here etc NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and grassroots organisations. After the allegations of illegal pushbacks, misconduct, harassment and fraud against Frontex came to light, this human rights perspective momentarily dominated the security narrative. However, even though the European Parliament is supposed to exercise democratic control over Frontex, the accountability of Frontex is restricted because the Parliament’s security competences are limited. Given that many issues discussed within border security are considered public security concerns, the amount of information given to the Parliament is restricted. The European Parliament is currently taking steps to hold Frontex accountable: blocking Frontex’s funds and asking critical questions for example in the meetings of the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group with Frontex’ director Leggeri and other agency representatives. However, until the Parliament receives security competences, democratic control over organisations such as Frontex is limited. 

Where do we go from here?

An internal report by Frontex has established that Frontex suffers from ‘deficiencies and has called for a new ‘culture within the agency: less hierarchical, more transparent. It is, however, doubtful whether that is enough for a process of desecuritisation – and whether that is actually the goal. The New Pact on Migration and Asylum points in a different direction: more data collection, strengthening the EU agencies and a strong emphasis on better management of external borders, thus further adding to the security dimension of migration.  Additionally, Member States do not necessarily have an interest in desecuritising migrants and migration. The ‘politics of fear’ is sadly a very influential tool in contemporary politics and politicians on the left and right of the political spectrum pursue anti-immigrant rhetoric for their own political gains. Social media and much of the mainstream media also generate fear and resentment towards migrants and seek to further securitarise the issue of migration. 

The Frontex photo competition could have been easily dismissed as a tone-deaf failed PR stunt. But thankfully several watchful NGOs highlighted that this would not go far enough in acknowledging the consequences Frontex’s actions have for the lives of actual people at the EU’s external borders. Have a look at the photos shared by the NGOs and decide for yourself.

Post published during the competition by the Europe Must Act instagram account.

  1. Joint return operations are operations coordinated by Frontex, where Member States collectively deport those people, who do not have the right to asylum, to their home countries.

  2. The Dublin system refers to the regulation that asylum seekers have to apply for asylum in the countries of first arrival. The system was meant to prevent ‘asylum shopping’ – a process in which asylum seekers ‘choose’ the best country for them. In practice, it has caused the peripheral countries (especially Greece and Italy) to be main receivers of asylum seekers.

  3. The Schengen area refers to the area of free movement established among the Member States. Initially agreed on outside of the European Community, since 1999 the Schengen zone is part of the EU.

  4. A speech act is a remark that serves a communicative function or demands an action. This action can either be said directly or intended by the speaker. In political science, speech acts help to highlight that security concerns do not exist ‘out there’, but they are discursively constructed by certain actors, for example politicians in political speeches.

  5. Terms such as illegal, undocumented, non-documented, and unauthorised migration can have different connotations in national policy debates. Due to this and the association with criminality the term ‘illegal migration” should be avoided, as most irregular migrants are not criminals. Being in a country without the required papers is, in most countries, not a criminal offence but an administrative infringement.



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