Frontex goes university – Outsourcing the militarization of the EU border into academia

Activists protesting against the border agency in Brussels. Source: Morning Star

Last months, a cooperation of the European border agency Frontex with the Turin Polytechnic University led to larger public criticism from Italian academics and activist. The university and Frontex agreed on a budget of 4 million Euros, for which the institution produces maps on an extraordinary large scale – 50 meters on the ground equal 1cm on the map. It is supposed to include particular buildings and small roads, enabling the border agency an increased control and surveillance of the EU-borders. Presumably, the mapped area will also cover parts of the border within Poland and Russia.

Since a long time, universities fail their self-claimed ideal of critical and independent research and thought. However, a direct cooperation with Frontex, an organization with a long list of accused and proven violations of international law, still is a remarkable step. Cooperations of Frontex with universities are not new. For instance, the Frontex Files list meetings of the border agency with universities all around Europe, from Bologna, to London, from Antwerp and Brussels to several German universities. The cooperation of the University in Turin exceeds prior cooperation, it is based on a contract over 24 months – the university creates maps and material for the work of the border agency. Critics ask, why a university should cooperate with an institution, embedded in years of systematic violence around the EU’s external borders? The normative answer to this question seems simple: it shouldn’t. That’s why it becomes more important to question on an analytical level what motives Frontex has in building relationships not only to universities, but also to private firms and other institutions and which consequences these relationships embed.

To understand this, the work of Frontex needs to be seen as part of a larger network of the security industrial complex, EU-institutions and universities. In this light, Frontex not only becomes the EU agency actively preventing the freedom of movement for those illegalized by the EUs border regime. It is part of the process of militarizing the border regime, hand in hand with universities, private firms and EU-institutions for their mutual benefit.    

Frontex and their narrative of the border

First and foremost, Frontex is a border security agency. This means, that their actual work is “securing the border”, which practically means restricting the movement of some people and goods, while enabling it for others. But Frontex is much more than the already existing national security forces. It upholds ties to political decision makers, researchers, private firms and more. Through them, Frontex has a distinct framing of the border, which it actively pushes forward, heavily funded by the EU. 

Besides the PR-work, common to many security agencies, Frontex deploys large research sections, uncommon for similar border agencies. It annually publishes their “Risk analysis reports”. The narrative in Frontex’ reports frames the border as the object under threat, not the lives of refugees who are literally drowning and beaten up due to the EUs border regime. Smugglers, transporting humans and drugs are the major theme appearing over and over again in these well-funded reports. Data about travel routes of illegalized migrants is collected and strategies to restrict the freedom of movement are presented and evaluated. Despite their claim of ensuring security at the border, the most vulnerable groups – illegalized migrants – are not even imagined in the mandate of the border agency. Frontex does not have a record of migrant mortality, which, as the researcher Aas and Gundhus indicate, constitutes the “lack of a ‘will to knowledge’”. The data ignores that the agency’s practice inherently leads to systematic breaches of international humanitarian law. Instead of questioning it, these reports and analysis legitimize this violence. 

This discursive power over the border goes hand in hand with Frontex’ main mandate – controlling the border. It deploys the actual border police, and thereby implements the militarization of the border and the criminalization of migration. Simultaneously, through its PR-work, analysis and reports it produces a world, in which violent and heavily armed borders are normal, or even necessary. The Turin Polytechnic University enjoys a good reputation inside and outside of Italy. While the Frontex reports are still relatively obvious examples of biased narratives of a security agency, the academic work could underpin the border agencies vision of an increasingly militarised border.

Universities and Frontex

Security related companies of course develop their products through own research; however, they still benefit from state funded knowledge in border control. University graduates, who have been trained into this system of border management and border control are potential laborers for the capitalist military and security industry. Frontex in 2017 already presented its Master’s program in “Strategic Border Management”, which the agency developed in cooperation with European universities. The participating universities are a mix of military related universities and public funded ones. The neoliberal paradigm of the university as preparation for the labour market in this sense has also reached the field military technology. The cooperation with the university in Turin, as well as several of Frontex’ program however are common public universities. Frontex’ infamous success in that sense is pushing public universities into their framework of border as sites of control and power.

The invasion of Frontex into academic spaces is contributing to the normalization of an agency, mainly working on the restriction of movement. Having this academic legitimization in general contributes towards the acceptance of increasingly militarised and securitised borders.

The militarization of the EU-border

As a recent publication by the Guardian again reiterated, Frontex is part of a larger militarization and technologization of the EU-borders. From drones and thermal camera to the use of artificial intelligence: Billions of Euros are spent in the restriction of movement. This happens inside national frameworks, as well as through Frontex on the EU level. The latter’s constant increase in budget, up to 543 million Euros in 2021, resembles the increasing investments in the border regime.

Within the transformation of the border regime during the recent years, technology plays a crucial role. On the one hand, military technologies, such as drones, thermal cameras, vehicles, night vision devices drones, and more are deployed in the restriction of illegalized movement. Also, in the humanitarian parts of the border complex, for instance camps in which People on the Move are hoarded as a manageable mass, technological solutions for control, as iris scans and camera surveillance are used or discussed. On the other hand, technology also is supposed to allow a smooth passage of the border for those people and goods, which are declared as legal. Under the frame of “smart borders” technology became the keyword for borders which highly efficient keep illegalized migrants and goods outside, while enabling a fast passage for the legal ones. Technology thus becomes the key to uphold global inequality, while allowing a more and more efficient reproduction of capitalist production cycles in world trade along borders.

The nexus – Frontex, EU, military-industrial complex and universities

The interrelation of Frontex, the EU, the military industrial complex and universities complement into a nexus of mutual interest, leading to, and profiting from a militarization of the border. 

The financing of the border regime is rooted in a triangular relation of Frontex, the EU and the military industrial complex: Frontex budget is decided upon by EU institutions, including the commission, the parliament and the council of ministers. Directly and through advisory councils, the military industrial complex lobbies the EU institutions for an increase in budget and deployment of their products. Frontex again benefits through increased budgets from these lobbying efforts, while it purchases the arms and security technology from the military industrial complex. The border and its “risk” of migration within this cycle of mutual interest became a market, in which millions of euros European tax money is spent on the violent border regime. 

The connection of Frontex with universities adds another level into this triangular relationship. The recent developments in Italy, where universities are contracted by Frontex can be seen as the next step in the outsourcing of the agency’s work towards the public sector. The cooperation is questionable for a lot of reason, in this context we want to highlight one of them: If border security entangles with universities, it will impact the discourse and research at universities. With their annual reports, Frontex already runs a large instrument in the knowledge production, which is uncommon for border police. Their next romance with universities endangers these supposedly critical places – instead of questioning border regimes and their injustice, people are trained for an institution with large records of human rights abuses. 

While Frontex, the military industrial complex and the political level engage in their mutual profit-game from militarizing the border, universities are endangered as a place of critique and begin to form an ideological and technical base for the border regime. In this way of thinking and imagining the border, illegalized are either not existent, or the threat against which the border is built. With this inhumane images and approaches, universities loose their critical and humanitarian educational mandate.

The interrelation of Frontex, the EU, the military industrial complex and universities, the nexus, it crucial to understand the ongoing militarization of the EU border. New security technology is at the same time a product of the declared need for security, while as well being the object further building up securitization of the border. The military industrial complex is bound to the need to sell, deploy and test their products. The border becomes as such the market in which profits for private companies are made. 

David Harvey stated, that especially within neoliberal capitalism, the idea emerged that technological solutions – the “technological fix” – will solve our problems. The militarization of the border follows a similar logic, in which the problem of the border, a declared lack of security, can be fixed by a technological fix – military technology. However, the underlying contradiction is ignored, namely that the militarization of the border as such is the source and not the solution of insecurity, for violence and death.

Abolish Frontex – more than cancelling a border agency

Many activists and groups within civil society organize the campaign to Abolish Frontex. For instance, on Saturday, 18th of December, a “action day” against Frontex is taking place in Berlin. In face of the call to abolish the agency, the question arises, whether Frontex is worse than simply the sum of the national border securities. More so, if Frontex even condemned the border politics of Hungary and stopped their work in the country, wouldn’t a reform of Frontex be better?

A reform of Frontex would not create more humane borders, because in a border regime, in which people are seen as threat, no reform can help. Of course, the abolition of Frontex would not end the existence of the EU borders, nor would it stop the gain of profit through an increasing militarization of the border regime. However, Frontex is more than a simple border agency. Placed in the “nexus”, Frontex is a key placer within allocation millions of taxpayers into an increasingly violent border regime. It produces a distorted and ultimately racist image in which the border is the victim and illegalized migrants are the perpetrators. It legitimizes the collective breaches of international humanitarian law and tolerates or participates in illegal pushbacks – not only at the political level, but now in academic spaces, too.

To Abolish Frontex would be a first step in disrupting the cycle of profit from the increasingly violent border regime of the EU. 

%d bloggers like this: