Institute for Migration & Ethnic Studies

Humanitarianism a key element of Frontex border policing

23 April 2015

Frontex, the European Union border management agency, has adopted a markedly more humane approach to the issue of border control and security. This is one of the chief findings of UvA researcher Polly Pallister-Wilkins, whose documented fieldwork among Frontex officials paints a slightly more balanced picture of an agency that is regularly accused of human rights violations.

In her research, Pallister-Wilkins – who conducted fieldwork in the region of Evros, along the Greek Turkish border, and at Frontex headquarters in Warsaw, Poland – identifies two specific trends among Frontex officials, namely a growing willingness to help those viewed to be most at risk and an improved ability to conduct rescue operations as a result of technological advances and increased capacity. These trends fly in the face of repeated accusations by certain activists that ‘Frontex kills’.

A European problem

It is simply too easy to blame Frontex officials for failing border care and control, says Pallister-Wilkins. ‘Border policing is a European issue and the result of a complex interplay of problems: of states seeking to protect their borders, of large flows of refugees and economic migrants, and of the need to protect those who are most at risk. Multiple actors are involved, especially on a local state level, who are restricted in their actions.’

Migrant detention

Canary Islands: migrants arriving on the Spanish Canary islands in 2004 (flickr.com/Noborder network)

Hardened attitudes  

Oddly enough, increased humanitarianism exists alongside a hardened attitude to border policing among a large proportion of the European public, says Pallister-Wilkins. ‘Frontex operatives are forced to conduct their work against the backdrop of growing public demands for stricter border control against a variety of perceived threats, all of which are embodied within the figure of the migrant. This tension between risk and rescue exists within the wider European framework in which border guards and Frontex operatives are expected to perform their duties.’ 

Frontex: a manager of risk

Pallister-Wilkins concludes that Frontex can talk in humanitarian terms, ask for humanitarian action and manage risk in the name of human beings, but cannot uphold human rights or ensure territorial security as both human rights and border policing remain the sovereign responsibility of EU member states. This leaves the agency as a manager of risk, utilising humanitarian logics to strategically counter criticism and secure the borders through interventions often justified in humanitarian terms.

Publication details

Polly Pallister-Wilkins (2015) 'The Humanitarian Politics of European Border Policing: Frontex and Border Police in Evros,' International Political Sociology 9(1): 53-69. Doi:10.1111/ips.12076

  • dr. P.E. (Polly) Pallister-Wilkins

    Personal webpage: Polly Pallister-Wilkins

    P.E.Pallister-Wilkins@uva.nl | T: 0205254702

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