“Suppose that Jordan decides to release its 2 million Iraqi refugees or that there is a regime change in Algeria,” hypothesized a risk analyst from Warsaw headquarters of Frontex, the European Union’s external border control agency, in 2008. Added his colleague, an operations specialist: “We have Cyprus, which has had a real problem with Lebanese people coming during the war with Israel — thousands of people coming to this small island.” Such “crises,” the officials argued, justify the creation of Frontex’s Rapid Border Intervention Teams, commonly known as RaBITs. These teams are composed of border control experts from EU member states who assemble ad hoc to ameliorate “crisis” on any external border from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. If called upon by Frontex’s executive director, who acts at the request of member states, the RaBITs are to deploy within five to ten days. But while “crisis” conjures them into existence, it is humanitarianism that underpins the teams’ actions, a third official explained: “The more we can get people back to shore, the more lives we save, the better…. The smugglers can be murderers.”

The Mediterranean Sea has long been a major avenue for smugglers of human beings — North Africans and sub-Saharan Africans who pass through North Africa — into the EU’s borderless “Schengen area.” With the fall of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the armed revolt against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, the problem on the EU’s southern maritime borders in early 2011 seemed to justify the Frontex officials’ reasoning. The number of migrants out of Tunisia and Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa reached 41,000 by June, according to Frontex and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Lampedusa mayor Bernardino de Rubeis announced, “We have a long history of welcoming migrants in Lampedusa — we are a welcoming people. But it’s enormously difficult to deal with a humanitarian emergency like this.” Through Operation Hermes, launched in response to the crisis in February, Frontex procured support from 14 member states in the form of aircraft, sea vessels, surveillance equipment and technical personnel. Its area of operation covered the Italian southern coast and surrounding islands. Debriefing experts and interviewers were posted to the migrant detention centers in Crotone in Calabria, Caltanissetta and Trapani in Sicily, and Bari in Puglia. European Commission President José Manuel Durão Barroso declared, “We need a true spirit of solidarity and burden sharing on this issue. I am happy to see that the European Council endorsed this approach of solidarity among Member States because some of them will probably be more affected.”

The trouble with crisis, however, is not simply the immediate catastrophe that earns the epithet. Upon closer inspection, moments identified as crises betray unequal structural relations that the EU would rather ignore. In the case of the North African uprisings, the narrative of coping with unexpected disaster casts Africa as a place entirely unrelated to Europe, a place that endemically suffers, to whose travails the EU reacts with generosity and kindness. But the emergent migration apparatus that is channeling the movement of people within North Africa and northward across the Mediterranean suggests a different, non-humanitarian imperative for the EU: to stabilize the sending countries and pacify Europe’s own xenophobic reaction to the arrivals.

Push and Pull

From this perspective, the crisis generated by the Arab uprisings was not the destabilization of autocratic states by rebellious populations, but rather of the EU’s southern maritime border by the subsequent exodus of refugees. The strategic decisions by Britain, France and Italy, as well as other EU countries and the United States, to support the Libyan rebels were aimed at bringing the conflict to a close lest it jeopardize border security indefinitely.

The EU faces what it calls a “demographic crisis,” fomented by the aging of its population, due to low birth rates and improvements in public health. The increasingly top-heavy age structure has led to gaps in the European labor market, with fewer native-born young people available to fill low-end jobs in particular. Many European employers have been tempted to hire cheap and often illegal migrant workers to assume the impermanent, poorly compensated jobs that are multiplying as native-born workers retire. The demographic crisis also gives rise to the lucrative business in human smuggling.

In response to the shortage of workers, the EU is developing, by default as much as by intention, a migration apparatus that encourages limited forms of temporary labor migration and discourages other movements through strict border control. Two opposing, though reconcilable, political forces shape that agenda: neo-liberals, representing the economic right, and neo-nationalists, representing the nationalist right. The two sides largely agree on increased security measures as both are interested in law and order. They disagree about whether migrants should be allowed to stay and, if so, for how long, but this key dispute has been resolved by the burgeoning number of “circular migration” programs. These programs satisfy neo-liberals because they attract necessary labor at the lowest possible cost and they appease neo-nationalists because labor migrants do not permanently settle. Migrants who fall outside this ring of mutual interest emerge as “crises”: security crises if they cannot be distinguished from global terrorist or criminal networks; cultural crises if they are perceived to threaten the sanctity of the nation; and humanitarian crises if their suffering tugs hard enough at Europe’s liberal heartstrings.

Anesthetic Border Control

The first step in preparing for border crises, smuggling-induced or otherwise, is to delimit the “limes.” This term derives from the ancient Roman concept of a boundary loosely marked by irregularly shaped natural features like marshes, bogs or forests and then further demarcated by stone fortifications. The Romans built such fortifications to repel German and other barbarian invasions. Today, LIMES is a forced acronym standing for “Land and Sea Integrated Monitoring for European Security,” the name of a four-year EU project (2006-2010) to establish a system for identifying and responding to threats along the external border with the aid of satellites and advanced surveillance equipment. The amorphous border du jour is the Mediterranean Sea. There, LIMES relies on the skills of the European Maritime Security Services, which boasts that it can spot “infrastructure and changes related to illegal trafficking such as boat building facilities, new mustering and embarkation facilities, storage facilities or the buildup of people in sensitive areas close to the coast or to national borders.” [1]

The second step is developing the means of enforcement. The meeting of the European Council at Laeken, Belgium in December 2001 highlighted the need for the EU to coordinate responses among the member states to the threats of terrorism, trafficking and illegal migration across the EU’s external border. Inside the border lay the “Schengen area,” which the EU also calls the Area for Freedom, Security and Justice. By 2005, the EU established Frontex to take up the responsibility of guaranteeing its safety from external threats. Based in Warsaw, Frontex’s staff amounts to nearly 300 people working as temporary agents, contracting agents or experts seconded from national governments. The EU created Frontex as an agency so that it can function autonomously. It has virtually no capacity, however, to run operations without support from member states, though it has recently acquired some border control assets. It therefore coordinates among member states to conduct operations that they support with human or material resources. Frontex’s annual budget has skyrocketed from 6 million euros in 2005 to 88 million in 2011.

While remote sensing maps potential “threats” to the EU’s external border, human intelligence provides Frontex with a fine-grained picture of how smugglers move across inhospitable terrain. Detained migrants often undergo interviews in which border experts from the host country and their Frontex counterparts gain insight into human smugglers’ modus operandi. Border officials hear about the geographic expanse and high sophistication of the networks across North Africa and how these smugglers interface with others in the Horn of Africa, East Africa and West Africa. They learn how border officials in Saharan Africa collaborate with smugglers to extract additional payments from the migrants. European officials sketch migrants’ profiles, often discovering that they can afford exorbitant smuggling fees because they hail from affluent families. They pinpoint the banks and other mechanisms through which payments are made. They record the types of vehicles and logistical equipment used, and the locations of accommodations along the journey. They trace the routes by which migrants are transported from safehouses in coastal cities to their precise beaches of departure. Nevertheless, Frontex is unable to police the Sahara. It must partner with North African regimes to secure borders and regulate human movements across them.

This strategy makes for dubious company, most notably in the case of Col. Qaddafi. For example, Italy funded two new detention centers in Libya in 2004 and 2005 that operate outside any system of law. (Libya is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees.) Numerous reports from Libya speak of routine abuse, torture and overall disregard for human rights. [2] In March 2010, Italy also spent 10 million euros to improve security in several Saharan countries, specifically through various IT systems and surveillance and transport equipment. [3] Under the framework of the 2004-2006 AENEAS program, which provides non-EU countries with technical and financial assistance in migration management, the EU assisted Libya in tightening its lengthy desert border with Niger. This border had previously been kept open to facilitate the movement of Nigerien laborers into Libya when Qaddafi’s regime embarked on ambitious development programs funded with oil wealth. While this measure may have stopped a small number of people from reaching the EU, it certainly precluded a much larger number from earning wages in Libya. [4]

This apparatus is not only a project of negative restrictions, but also a positive one encouraging types of movement required to particular holes in Europe’s labor market. To this end, the EU relies on two approaches. The first are “mobility partnerships” — agreements brokered by the European Commission on behalf of interested member states and non-EU countries. To date, agreements have been signed with Cape Verde, Moldova and Georgia, and negotiations are underway with Senegal. They commit the third country to improving border security in exchange for European help with improving the third country’s labor market to counteract brain drain. The third country may also receive preference in certain categories of temporary visa. The second approach involves circular migration programs, the advocates of which assert that migrants do not wish to settle permanently in their destination countries. Rather, they wish to travel to wealthy countries to remit higher wages and to gain skills that will help them develop their own communities back home. In this spirit, a state-level minister in Germany announced at a migration policy conference, “Migration to another country is not a decision for life…. We need to improve the conditions for mobility…and prevent brain drain…. Let the Malian doctor work in Manchester and at home.” Along with “circular migration” and “temporary migration,” “mobility” has become a migration policy buzzword because it implies permanent circulation, rather than permanent settlement. The hidden point is to reduce migrants to an ephemeral presence in Europe that works without being seen and evaporates when the job is done.

The Integrated Management Information System (IMIS), funded by the International Organization for Migration and the governments of Egypt and Italy, illustrates the point. IMIS is mainly designed to promote seasonal migration for work in agriculture or service sectors like tourism or hospitality. The temporary permit is valid from 20 days to nine months, after which employees must return to Egypt. If they return, they are given priority in the next year’s applicant pool. Egypt’s aptly named Ministry of Manpower and Emigration built the employer-employee information exchange website. Egyptian workers upload a user profile including a current résumé. They also select up to two job titles from a menu of 50 and have the option of choosing up to ten job specializations. The Ministry examines the profile and searches for compatible Italian employers. Employers likewise must create accounts to post job openings and learn the characteristics of the available Egyptian labor pool. The employer then short-lists the top candidates, who they can interview directly or indirectly through an Egyptian recruitment firm. The Ministry ensures the validity of the job seeker’s data. The final match is made with almost no contact between the laborer and the employer. The International Organization for Migration stresses in its description of the IMIS project that it “does not create a binding relationship between the employer and the potential candidate. Foreign employers reserve the right to choose the employers [sic] according to their recruitment needs.” Many migrants refer to these programs as “migration a la carte,” set up so that employers can choose migrant-laborers from a menu and dispose of the “Kleenex workers” after one use. Ra’fat Radwan, former chairman of the Information and Decision Support Center (a data warehouse to support policymaking for the Egyptian government), nonetheless praised IMIS as a mechanism that could “bridge the gap between North and South” and play a role in the “dialogue of civilizations.” [5]

Policing the Rest

Scholars have thoroughly documented how liberalization of the world economy has devastated southern economies and created an array of low-paying temporary jobs in the global north. [6] Circular migration programs are designed to organize the matching of the southern worker with his or her northern slot. Those who do not get absorbed into circular migration programs are left to their own devices. They still need access to living wages and, as the uprisings in the Arab world have made dramatically clear, stable political environments. These people constitute the difference — between the planners’ vision and the extent of human need, between the realm of legality and the risks people are willing to take to earn a decent living.

To take up the slack, smugglers are ready and willing to offer their services, but these so frequently result in great exploitation of and high financial cost to migrant workers — not to mention considerable physical danger. The perils of the Mediterranean crossing, in particular, allow EU officials to speak of combating human smuggling in humanitarian terms, as a problem of protecting vulnerable migrants led astray on arduous clandestine journeys by nefarious criminals. The enhanced control of the EU’s external border is then framed as necessary for the good of migrants themselves. As one high-level European Commission official reasoned in 2008: “You have all seen those terrible pictures of people drowning in the Mediterranean trying to reach…Lampedusa and then in the Atlantic as well the Canary Islands. These are absolute tragedies. We have to do everything to stop it. And one of the ideas is the need to develop a very sophisticated maritime surveillance system.”

The EU’s migration apparatus is not a vast humanitarian intervention, but an amalgam of policies and enforcement agencies, usually given a humanitarian face, that define “crisis” according to the EU’s own political and economic needs. That crisis provokes the EU to fine-tune the efficiency of its migration management policy — not to improve the wellbeing of migrants themselves. Many migrants, of course, understand this point quite well, but they are hardly positioned to inject it into policy discussions.


[1] “The MARISS Service Portfolio,” MARISS Newsletter 2 (2007), pp. 2-3.
[2] Migreurop, European Borders: Controls, Detentions and Deportations (Paris, October 2010), pp. 39-41.
[3] Ibid., pp. 34-35.
[4] Ibid., pp. 38-39.
[5] Nyier Abdou, “Italy and Egypt Meet Online,” al-Ahram Weekly, October 16-22, 2003.
[6] Saskia Sassen, “Fear and Strange Arithmetics: When Powerful States Confront Powerless Immigrants,” Open Democracy, June 19, 2008.

How to cite this article:

Greg Feldman "Europe’s Border Control with a Humanitarian Face," Middle East Report 261 (Winter 2011).

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