Europe’s leaders have a growing enthusiasm for border controls. During his State of the European Union address on Sept. 12, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled plans for a new round of reforms to Frontex. Although the organization only in 2016 became a fully fledged border and coastguard agency, Juncker proposed that Frontex recruit 8,400 more border guards by 2020, bringing the total number to 10,000. The plan is to provide Frontex with executive powers to identify, intercept, and repatriate migrants. The organization would also be able to launch joint operations in third countries and would help prevent the secondary movement of migrants within the European Union.
Time and again, European leaders from across the political spectrum have blamed the migration crisis on smugglers who profit from human misery. They rightly condemn these smugglers for packing huge numbers of migrants into makeshift boats before setting them on the hazardous journey to Europe. But they have adopted the misleading narrative that to tackle the migration crisis one must first eradicate people smuggling. Using Frontex to reinforce maritime border controls therefore seems a rational response to people smuggling: It works to restore law and order.
However, most academics and civil society groups oppose this approach. It ignores the way in which hardening borders merely redirects migration flows through other, often more perilous, channels. Moreover, accessing the asylum system in Europe almost always involves embarking on a dangerous journey and breaking the law.
Since 2016, the number of migrants and refugees arriving in the European Union has dramatically decreased, due in no small part to improved cooperation between the European Union, its member states, and Libya. Around 70,000 have arrived so far this year, a return to pre-2014 levels. Yet the risks have increased, and the International Organization for Migration reports that a growing proportion of migrants are dying in their attempts to reach Europe. The mortality rate of migrants crossing the Mediterranean has risen for four consecutive years, and whereas 4 out of 1,000 migrants died en route in 2015, 24 out of 1,000 died in the first six months of 2018.
This trend might be surprising given the growth in funding for Frontex and the inclusion of search-and-rescue operations in its mandate. Indeed, the agency is now tasked with “saving lives at sea”, and its budget has risen from €6 million in 2005 to €98 million in 2014 and €320 million in 2018. However, it is the protection of borders rather than the protection of lives that is the agency’s raison d’être. For instance, with the launch of the Operation Triton in 2014, the European Union limited Frontex patrols to within 30 miles of Italy’s coast, even though the majority of rescues take place much closer to Libya.
Despite widespread talk of “burden sharing,” the European Union’s migration policy centers not on solidarity and cooperation but rather on delegation. This leaves a small number of European countries, notably Italy and Greece, responsible for managing refugees and other migrants. This delegation of competences takes place inside the European Union – particularly through the Dublin Regulation, which obliges asylum seekers to register in the first European country they enter. Juncker’s proposal to task Frontex with preventing secondary movements follows the regulation’s logic.
Juncker’s plan also reflects the EU strategy of externalization, which places responsibility on non-European countries to contain refugees and other migrants. The strategy has led to an array of political agreements and technical initiatives, such as the 2016 EU-Turkey migration deal, training programs for Libyan border guards, and the deployment of Frontex to coordinate joint patrols along the central Mediterranean route. European leaders describe externalization as a way to show solidarity with countries beyond its borders, and as a means of providing humanitarian support. EU leaders emphasize how risky it is for migrants to cross the Mediterranean, arguing that they would be better off in their countries of birth or in neighbouring states.
Most European countries justify their non-intervention in the migration crisis with references to the delegation of competencies. This conceals the way in which European leaders have designed a system that allows many of them to avoid dealing with the crisis altogether. In practice, the EU’s delegation of responsibilities allows Frontex to transfer migrants to states with dubious human rights records, such as Turkey and Libya. Meanwhile, European leaders seem to implicitly explain migrant deaths as collateral damage arising from the enforcement of the law against illegal crossings.
Thus, Juncker’s proposed reforms signal that the European Union has abandoned its aspiration to become a supranational guardian of human rights. Most European countries seem to have regressed to the cold logic of raison d’etat, which privileges the protection of state borders over the protection of people’s lives.