Border policing at sea: Frontex and the crafting of (il)legality

COVADONGA BACHILLER LÓPEZ  |  8 MAY 2021  |  OXFORD MIGRATION CONFERENCE 2021

Picture by nck_gsl on Pixabay.

The growing incorporation of human rights into the legal basis of Frontex, the EU border agency, and its internal architecture contrast starkly with the increasingly visible violence at Europe’s borders. Illegality creeps into everyday bordering practices in the form of boats left adrift, pushbacks, beatings or gunshot threats. Violent methods are enacted across multiple sites: from the Aegean and Mediterranean seas to the Evros river region at the Greek-Turkish border and the Balkan route. These spaces also stage Frontex’s operational theatre in which officers are being deployed to conduct border enforcement. Their involvement has led many to pose urgent questions about Frontex’s complicity in human rights violations.

 

Applying a socio-legal lens, my research explores how the bordering practice of patrolling the Aegean Sea is structured at the level of the everyday. In particular, it focuses on the ‘early detection’ tactic that has been systematically performed since March 2020 in the context of Frontex Joint Operation Poseidon. This tactic, which entails Frontex promptly detecting a migrant boat and alerting Greek authorities, who subsequently prevent the boat from crossing the borderline, conflicts, notably, with the agency’s obligation to guarantee the protection of fundamental rights in its operations. The main question we are concerned with is: how are such unlawful practices routinised and normalised, or subverted, in the day-to-day enforcement of the border? By analysing the script, roles and interactions that structure officers’ routine performance of the ‘early detection’ tactic, the paper sheds light on the uneasy coexistence of the securitisation of borders and the growing presence of human rights, and the effects on everyday border policing. How do officers navigate the tensions at the core of their mandate – to ‘protect’ European territory and to ‘protect’ those at risk at sea – and what is the role of the law in the bordering practices they enact?

 

My research analyses officers’ self-understandings of their role, mandate and obligations under international and human rights law, to show how the ‘early detection’ tactic has shifted officers’ gaze of rescue to one of territorial control. When officers’ everyday uses of the law are brought to the fore, it emerges that bordering practices are not anchored in, and, in fact, are entirely disconnected from, the work of the Frontex Fundamental Rights Office. Officers’ perceptions of illegality are limited to a particular conception of human rights at sea, where only a limited number of rights pertaining to extreme conditions of life and death are perceived to be at stake. Other rights, however, like the prohibition of refoulement, in which the performance of early detection is constantly implicated through officers’ mundane and routinised collaboration with the Greek authorities, do not feature in officers’ imaginaries. Migrants are, therefore, only rights bearers of what is the bare minimum for the maintenance of their immediate existence. 

 

These findings draw on a two-week-long ethnographic observation with a Frontex coastal patrol team on a Greek island, as well as thirty in-depth semi-structured interviews with Frontex officers, Hellenic Coast Guard, and senior officers sitting at coordination centres. The research presented at the Conference provides novel insights into how Frontex’s operational theatre allows for new modalities of bordering practices to come into being and ultimately become routinised, as well as the way in which law is practised on the ground.

Covadonga Bachiller López

Covadonga Bachiller López is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Early Stage researcher at Teesside University. Her PhD project explores the ground-level realities of border policing through an ethnographic study of Frontex. Trained as a lawyer, Covadonga is interested in officers’ understandings of law as well as the effects of the growing presence of human rights on everyday border policing.

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