Frontex in the Aegean

In 2009, 150.000 irregular migrants were intercepted in Greece, which amounts for 75% of all interceptions in the EU. Even though in 2010, this number is likely to drop again, it is clear that the closure of other routes to Europe (West Africa to Spain, Libya to Italy/Malta) has made Greece the presently last remaining gateway to the EU, turning it into a embattled ground where the EU is intervening decisively.

There are three tested responses to irregular migration, and the operations of Frontex in Greece and the Aegean have elements of all of them. The first would be to integrate Turkey into the border regime (similar to the case of Libya). On an institutional level, Frontex is trying to connect with the Turkish coast guard and to involve them in joint maneuvers and also seeks a working agreement with the Turkish border authority. But also Greece and the EU are trying to improve their cooperation with Turkey on migration matters: While Greece and Turkey have a readmission agreement (which Greece would like to extend, since practically, its functioning is questionable), the EU has been negotiating such an agreement for many years with Turkey, albeit without success so far. Functional readmission agreements would force Turkey to readmit not only nationals, but all irregular migrants who can be proved to have entered Greece and the EU via Turkey. This would shift the responsibility for securing borders and inhibiting the movements of migration to Turkey.

The second strategy aims to reinforce the border controls between Greece and Turkey, both at the land border in the Evros region as well as between the Turkish coast and the Greek islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Rhodos. For 2010, Frontex has announced they would hold their largest operation ever in Greece, thus mobilizing border guards and equipment from all over Europe. Concerning the land borders, the task is clear: sealing off and patrolling the border, possibly involving high-tech equipment for better monitoring of movements. At the sea borders, the task is much more unclear, since the geographical specificity of the islands close to the Turkish coasts don’t allow for the “diversion” of boats carrying potential irregular migrants. Still, an immense focus of Frontex seems to lie on intercepting and detaining migrants on the sea. One can only speculate to the motivations. For one, it is the interest of the border guards to establish custody of irregular migrants as early as possible. Another possible motivation is both to present a more decisive effort of guarding the border so that a crossing of the border seems more risky. Frontex has also been known to put a focus on going after facilitators of undocumented border crossings, so interfering with such crossings as early as possible might improve their chances to identify so called “smugglers”. In the end, it is also thinkable that Frontex attempts to establish a chain of evidence (footage from helicopters, portraits of those intercepted, protocols of interception) for all migrants to be able to present to the Turkey authorities an irrefutable claim that they did actually come from Turkey and are thus eligible for deportation under the readmission agreement.

The third strategy is to internalize the border. After all, the border is a selection mechanism to split between “legitimate and illegitimate” travelers, granting differing rights according to this categorization. Concerning irregular migrants, this selection process must not necessarily happen right at the border: the Greek state is intent on building so called screening centers in all geographic locations where migrants might be encountered: the land and sea borders, the metropolitan centers as well as at the points of exit, where migrants attempt to continue their journey northbound. Amongst other purposes, the screening centers allow for an individualization of migration, meaning that in the centers, the multiplicity of detained migrants are divided into single individuals with a distinct identity, history, situation, etc. This allows for differential treatment. While those found to be in need of protection might obtain asylum, most migrants will be identified as “economic migrants”, thus not legitimate to have entered the country and need to be deported. It is exactly this filtration and deportation process which Frontex is establishing, like in a field test, in the detention center of Samos island, where a so called translator is active in the center, interviewing the detainees and writing his version of their identity and story. It is however his version that becomes the official version, which makes deportation both legitimate and feasible: in the case of Samos, many migrants reported that the Frontex investigator denied their claim that they were from Palestine (to where no deportations can be made morally and practically) and changing their nationality to one that Turkey would accept under the Greek-Turkish readmission agreement. While only few migrants are released from Samos detention center, most are transferred to Athens, where they are held in yet a different detention center only to be transferred further to detention centers in the Evros region (Venna, for example) from where they are ultimately deported to Turkey. But while deportations to Turkey are still difficult and apply only to a few nationalities, Frontex has been known to have set up a deportation center in Athens and in the framework of their so called operation Attica have started to negotiate with other countries for the readmission of their nationals, effectively building a deportation system which most other EU member states have and with which Frontex has a lot of experience giving its involvement with charter deportations.

This example of the activities of Frontex in the Aegean demonstrates why Frontex is not just another border guard institution, or the europeanized version of a national border guard entity. While many components of what Frontex is involved in (patrolling, passport checks, etc) are comparable to the tasks of their national counterparts, its practice as a border authority is generally orthogonal to how a nation state would handle its borders. The approach of Frontex can only be described as cross-sectional, both geographically and methodically. Geographically, Frontex operates outside, on and inside the border, while methodically, Frontex combines all sorts of “services” around controlling “illegal” migration: interception, interrogation, identity checks and deportation are all part of the parcel, and Greece seems to be happy to accept the whole deal.

July 2010

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