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Human rights and the (in)humanity at EU’s borders

The precarious humanitarian situation at Europe’s borders is creating what seems to be an irresolvable tension between the interests of European states to seal off their borders and the respect for fundamental human rights. Frontex, EU’s External Border Control Agency, in particular has been since its inception in 2004 embroiled in a fair amount of public controversy. Described by the Human Rights Watch as “EU’s dirty hands” and linked to human rights violations, Frontex has been one of the most visible examples of the militarization of Europe’s borders. However, the organization has in recent years seen a remarkable growth in its budget, personnel, and in the size of its joint operations. Frontex is a central element in the EU Commission’s ambitious plans to strengthen European border security and create a European Border and Coast Guard force.

But how is it to work on the ground, as a border guard officer, and feel the political tensions on a daily basis? How do officers, when met face-to-face with the needs of people in extremely precarious life situations, reconcile the objectives of state security with the respect for human rights? As part of our research project on border policing we interviewed police officers participating in Frontex operations. Somewhat to our surprise, human rights and humanitarian language seemed to be everywhere. For example, the Frontex Code of Conduct, handed out to all officers on operations, lists the following:

  1. Know and respect the law
  2. Inform those in need of international protection about their rights and relevant procedures
  3. Respect human dignity at all times and be sensitive to cultural differences
  4. Pay particular attention to the need of vulnerable persons
  5. Uphold the highest ethical standards
  6. Act fairly and impartially at all times
  7. Report all violations of the law and the Frontex guide to behavior…
shut down frontex (demonstration through warsaw) by Noborder Network. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Officers are expected to achieve the remarkable task (which has eluded so many European states) of effectively controlling migration, yet with a full respect for fundamental rights, including the right to asylum. The question can be asked, of course, whether this is just a smoke screen. Are human rights and the humanitarian discourse simply a discursive tool, employed by EU institutions to justify policies and actions, which directly and indirectly contribute to the precariousness of life? After all, humanitarianism is, as Didier Fassin points out, becoming an increasingly salient mode of governance in crisis situations. Are we simply witnessing performative aspects of humanitarianism with little relevance on the ground?

The EU’s recent deal with Turkey may indicate that this clearly is the case. Our analysis of Frontex risk reports and other operational documents also reveals obvious contradictions and disjunctions between the objectives of state security and a concern for migrants’ vulnerability. The loss of life at the borders is, in spite of frequent public and academic critique, still not counted in the official statistics. Vulnerability, in fact, refers to “pressures on the borders”, rather than to humans crossing them. A question can thus be raised about who is considered deserving of protection in such a context?

However, our interviews with Frontex officers on the ground reveal a more complex and paradoxical picture. While human rights and the humanitarian discourse certainly perform a certain kind of political and public relations “work” in the policing of European borders, they also seem to be to some extent internalized and appropriated by actors on the ground. Frontex officers thus try to reconcile the conflicting demands to help and to control, to be at the same time humane towards and suspicious of migrants, which can result in self-doubt and soul searching.  As one Norwegian officer, stationed in Greece, put it:

“Are we contributing to something good or are we just helping Greece to do something wrong? /…/ I hope that my children and grandchildren can look back on what their father and grandfather did as something that was right, that he did something good; that this will not be a shadow in European history that I have contributed to. I really hope so.”

His reflections reveal an awareness that simply having good intentions in deeply inhumane conditions may not be enough, and that history may pass a harsh judgement on the present border control measures. Perhaps these are moral questions that we all, including policy makers and the architects of current migration control solutions, should be asking ourselves.

Featured image credit: Refugees on the Hungarian M1 highway on their march towards the Austrian border. 20150904 174 by photog_at. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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