Frontex’s performative speech: Or how to provoke the risks allegedly predicted

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On 15 February, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, called “Frontex”, published its annual report on “Risk analysis for 2017”. More specifically, as every year, based on information collected during joint operations, data supplied by EU and non-EU Member State border control authorities and figures obtained from various sources (governmental agencies, European institutions, NGOs and international organisations…), the Agency presents a 60-page report whose aim is to predict the “risks” and future trends in terms of migration.

In 2017, as it has done since 2010, Frontex advocates a strengthening of information gathering and methods of control, particularly at European borders, to reinforce the effectiveness of surveillance, for a better “management” of migration. But, logically, these additional controls will contribute, in turn, to expand the data related to crossings and will thus justify the idea of an increased migratory risk for Europe… that needs to be addressed.

In its 2017 version, the report is structured as follows:

– First of all, a statistical review of the situation at the EU external borders (through a detailed analysis of the number of “clandestine” entries, irregular crossings and refusals of entry registered in 2016 along the different migratory routes) and after the entry in the EU (based on the figures on asylum, irregular stays, secondary movements and returns)

– Then, a certain number of targeted analysis on specific questions linked to the presence of migrants at the borders : safety and security situation in reception centres ; vulnerabilities of the European return system ; case study on Iranian nationals travelling to the EU with false documents…

– Finally, in the addendum, there are complementary statistics on the situation at the borders and in the Member States

  • « Illegal » border-crossing and refusals of entry… misleading numbers

We know that data published by Frontex is often taken up by the media and elected officials and generally used to perpetuate the myth of a “migratory invasion” of the EU. However, these figures should be interpreted with much caution, as always pointed out by AEDH and its partners from civil society.

Thus, for 2016, Frontex indicates that migratory pressure on the EU external borders remained important, with the detection of over half a million irregular border-crossing (511,371). This is admittedly a decrease of 72% compared to 2015 (1,8 million), but for the Agency, the level of risk is still high and superior to that of 2010 (104,060) or 2014 (282,933).

However, such data overestimates the number of migrants concerned, as Frontex itself acknowledges when it states that the 511,371 irregular border-crossing correspond, in reality, to the arrival of around 382,000 migrants on the European soil (which is somewhat higher than the International Organisation for Migration’s estimate: about 364,401 in 2016[1]).

This number is indeed misleading as it does not represent persons, but border crossings. Therefore, the same person may be counted several times, for example, if he or she has been detected as arriving on the Greek islands, and then another time as entering Hungary or Croatia :  a clarification that Frontex had to provide at the end of a press release issued on 13 October 2015, after being questioned on social media about the reliability of its methods of calculation[2].

Thus, Frontex continues to base all its analysis on the number of border crossings, rather than that of arrivals.

This method even attracts a following as, this year, the accounting of attempts to “irregularly” enter the EU no longer focuses on the number of persons refused entry, but on the number of refusals of entry issued at the external borders. A better way of “captur[ing] the number representing the workload for border­ control authorities[3], according to Frontex. However, the same person may be refused entry several times, at different borders, or even at the same border when migrants are obstinate in their projects… Accordingly, the figure put forward by Frontex of 206,656 refusals of entry issued by the Member States in 2016, which would represent an official increase of 49% compared to 2015 is, here again, overstated – but without us being able to measure of how much!

Moreover, even though accurate, the sole accountability would not suffice to provide real elements for assessing the situation at the EU borders. Indeed, Frontex neglects to mention, that these numbers include persons eligible to claim international protection and who often have no other choice but to “irregularly” cross borders to seek asylum in Europe, in the absence of any safe and legal alternative. This concerns, in particular, the three most represented nationalities among asylum seekers, namely Syrians (28%), Afghans (25%) and Iraqis (6%) who were also the most likely to enter the EU “irregularly” in 2016 (respectively 17%, 11%, and 6% according to Frontex).

Under international conventions, these persons cannot be included in a census of “irregular migration”, as Frontex rightfully knows. Its diagnosis thus constitutes, yet again, an abuse of language.

Furthermore, if Frontex really wanted to reassure Europeans, it would be possible. The Agency reports, indeed, that the number of irregulars has drastically decreased since 2015 (39%) to 491 891, according to information received from the Member States.

  • Despite the resources deployed, the Mediterranean remains an important crossing point and the world’s deadliest border 

Unsurprisingly, the year 2016 was marked by a strong decrease in the number of irregular crossings detected on the Eastern Mediterranean route (around 72% less than 2015). Behind this observation, the drop in the number of arrivals on the Greek islands following the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement, and the closure of the Western Balkan route, which undermined any hope of reaching the other Member States from Greece.

By contrast, Italy, which became the principle gateway to Europe, reported in 2016 the arrival of around 182 000 migrants on its territory, namely 17% more than last year (150 000). Detections in the Central Mediterranean have reached their highest level in 2016, with 181,459 irregular crossings, while they were 153 946 in 2015 (+18%).

This increase, however, is not related to the drop in arrivals to Greece, since the nationalities arriving in Italy are not the same. While Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis are more likely to take the Eastern Mediterranean route, the majority of migrants arriving in Italy through Libya are from West Africa, and especially Nigeria (25%), Eritrea (11%) and Guinea (7,5%).

The same phenomenon is true for the Western Mediterranean. The number of irregular crossings detected in that region increased by nearly 50% (from 7,004 in 2015 to 10, 231 in 2016), and West African migrants were by far the most numerous to have been intercepted at the border (21% of Guineans and 16% of Ivoirians). But these figures only partially convey the situation, as nothing is said about the practices of refoulement by Spanish authorities at the border with the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla[4].

According to Frontex, 96% of migrants interviewed in the Central Mediterranean claimed to have used the services of a smuggler to reach Europe, thus suggesting that “irregular migration via Libya is entirely dependent on the services of the smuggling networks[5].

Far from drawing the necessary conclusions on the efficiency of its missions and Operation Sophia, which was launched by the EU in June 2015 with the objective, precisely, of breaking the business model of smugglers operating from Libya, Frontex prefers to blame NGOs, considering that it is the increase in rescue operations, including near Libyan waters, that encouraged traffickers to send more and more migrants to sea. A causal link which is unfounded, since it has been repeatedly demonstrated that rescue missions had no influence on the number of persons attempting to cross the Mediterranean[6].

Nevertheless, the report specifies that vessels used in the Mediterranean Sea are increasingly smaller, and increasingly crowded, leading to a growing number of shipwrecks and deaths[7]. It appears, however, that the use of dinghies, cheaper and less conspicuous, was deemed necessary to escape the interceptions by Frontex and therefore results from the reinforcement of its presence in the Mediterranean[8].

The Agency, however, informs us of its contribution to saving human lives: in 2016, 31,402 off the coasts of Italy and 35,316 off the coasts of Greece. No one would consider questioning these figures! It is true, however, that the Agency’s new mandate integrates the European regulation of 2014 on operations at sea and, for this reason, Frontex must “support search and rescue operations for persons in distress at sea which may arise during border surveillance operations at sea”. But this is no more than a reminder of the obligations that are incumbent upon any vessel under the international law of the sea and does not render of Frontex a sea rescue agency.

  • The sealing-off of internal borders: a non-deterrent measure 

Regarding secondary movements, the reinstatement of border controls at the internal borders of the Schengen area from certain Member States lead, according to the report, to “a diversification of routes and modi operandi”. In other words, travelling in the Member States  has not disappeared, but is becoming more discreet and more insidious.

The reinforcement of border controls also led some migrants to change their itinerary. For example, those who used to pass through Austria after arriving in Italy are now transiting through Switzerland and France to reach the Northern EU States. Proof, in any were required, that the sealing off of internal borders will not prevent migrant movements, as all they have to do is switch to other routes…

  • An increase in returns of “irregular” migrants that meets the Commission’s expectations

Frontex indicates that the Member States have issued 205,365 return decisions in 2016, 6.5% more than in 2015.

Nevertheless, the number of “effective returns” remained stable compared to 2015, “only” affecting nearly 176,000 migrants, 45% through forced return operations, and 52% on a voluntary basis.

For the European Commission, the stakes are high and justify the means adopted in its communication of early March[9], that led to vigorous protests by nearly one hundred different NGOs. That is also the expected function of the European laissez-passer that the Commission is trying to have accepted by third countries in order to circumvent the difficulties in obtaining consular visas[10].

For its part, Frontex has coordinated the return of 10,700 migrants on 232 flights. This is a substantial increase compared to 2015, where “only” 44 joint return flights carrying 3,565 migrants had been organised. These figures are worrying, considering the important number of testimonials revealing the existence of violent practices that violate the rights of persons expelled[11], but are expected to continue increasing over the next few years as the new European Border and Coast Guard Agency aspires to play a greater role in the implementation of return operations of persons without residence permit.

For Frontex, the increase in returns should flow from a stronger cooperation with the authorities of third countries and the deployment, in the Member States, of a newly-created pool of return experts. Frontex also plans to deploy its own liaison officers in certain third countries considered as priorities, especially in Africa, to prevent the departure of migrants to Europe, in total contempt of the right to leave any country, including one’s own.

  • A continuing expansion of means

Frontex’s agenda on returns, expulsions and external border controls are thus expected to be particularly intense in 2017! The Agency affords to be as ambitious thanks to the support of the European institutions who decided last September to substantially increase its resources by its integration in the new European Corps of Border Guards[12].

Thus, its workforce has been doubled; and a new intervention force of 1,500 border guards, capable of being rapidly deployed in the event of an “emergency” at the EU external borders, made available. Moreover, Frontex was given greater material and financial resources. In this regard, it is worth noting that since its creation in 2005, the Agency’s budget has been steadily increasing. From 20 million euros in 2006, its annual budget reached 90 million euros in 2010, and 143 million in 2015. Today, it is of 300 million euros!

  • An opaque cooperation with third countries

These additional resources will now support the process of externalisation of border management in which the EU has been committed for several years. Thus, since 2005, Frontex has increased its “working arrangements” with border control authorities in third countries. In most cases, these agreements provide for the participation of third countries in joint operations (return flights, surveillance operations…), the training of border guards, as well as improved cooperation in the exchange of information.

Moreover, Frontex has created several risk analysis networks: a European network (FRAN), and three extra-European networks (EB-RAN with Eastern countries; WB-RAN with Western Balkans countries; AFIC with West African countries[13]). The objective of these networks is to exchange information and collect data on migrant’s “profile” (age, nationality…), and the routes they use to come to Europe.

In addition to their objective, these agreements with third countries have been widely criticised by civil society because of their total absence of transparency. Thus, the content and implementation of “working arrangements” are exempt from any democratic scrutiny, either in the national parliaments or the European Parliament and there are currently no means of assessing their impact on fundamental rights (refoulement at the borders, violation of the right to leave one’s country…).

More generally, Frontex always find a way to shift responsibility, either to the host Member States where its agents are deployed or to a third country. This is, for instance, the case of maritime operations in the high seas. Indeed, migrants intercepted on the high seas and then landed in a third country are considered as falling under the responsibility of the latter State[14], thus enabling the Agency to enjoy total impunity.

The overabundance of statistical data published by Frontex fosters the illusion that the EU has been enduring an emergency migratory crisis for two years.

This will no doubt serve the Agency’s objective, whose whole philosophy is centred on the idea of a risk that would threaten Europe, thus calling for a material one-upmanship (border and coast guards personnel, steadily increasing budget, constant deployment of quasi-military means, acceleration of return operations).

The fact that this material one-upmanship, coupled with an increase in restrictive practices of certain Member States – as evidenced by FRA in its newly-published report[15] – takes part in maintaining, and even increasing irregular migratory flows coming from certain regions of the world, has never been mentioned by European institutions. Unruffled, they produce Frontex’s performative speech; probably because they find in it the justification for their security approach of migration and for the coercive measures they plan to adopt, both with respect to “economic” migrants than to persons seeking international protection.

Already, in 2010, AEDH raised a certain number of question on the activities of Frontex, its legitimacy under the texts guaranteeing legal safeguards within the EU, its opacity and the absence of parliamentary control[16]. Seven years later, despite official statements, the Agency’s new mandate still does not answer them…and our association will thus continue to support Frontexit because it wants Europe to stop behaving as if it were “at war with an imaginary enemy”[17].


For further information:

  • On UNHCR’s website:

UNHCR’s database [ENG]

  • On the IOM’s website:

Map on migratory flows in Europe [ENG]

  • On Frontex’s website:

Risk Analysis Report 2017 [ENG]

Map on migratory flows [ENG]



[1] See IOM’s map on migration flows to Europe : (last consulted on 18 March 2017)

[2] See « Seeing double ? How the EU miscounts migrants arriving at its borders », The Conversation, 21 October 2015

[3] Frontex, Annual Risk Analysis 2017, p. 21

[4] See the report published by APDHA : Derechos Humanos en la Frontera Sur 2017 ; marso 2017 –

[5] Frontex, Annual Risk Analysis 2017, p.8

[6] Steinhilper, E. and Gruijters (University of Oxford), « Border Deaths in the Mediterranean : What We Can Learn from the Latest Data », 8 mars 2017

[7] According to IOM latest data, 4,500 migrants lost their lives in the Mediterranean in 2016,

[8] L, HUBAU, « Opération Sophia, aide humanitaire… L’action de l’UE en Libye critiquée par l’ONU  »

[9] Communication from the Commission : On a more effective return policy in the European Union – A renew action plan ; Brussels, 2.3.2017 COM(2017) 200 final –

Joint communication from nearly 90 associations : New EU Commission plans on returns and detention will create more harm and suffering  ; Brussels 3 March 2017

[10] See AEDH, A « new » European laissez-passer to improve the efficiency of the EU return policy, 26 July 2016

[11] Migreurop (2011) Paroles d’expulsé.e.s

[12]  Consisting of a European Border and Coast guard agency (the current Frontex agency with expanded tasks) and those national authorities responsible for border management, the role of the new European Corps of Border Guards is the establishment of an operational strategy for border management and the coordination of assistance from all member states. It has been definitely approved by the Council on 14 September 2016.

[13] Annual risk analysis reports 2016 issued within the framework of these networks have all been published on Frontex’s website. See Voir ?c=risk-analysis

[14] Migreurop report, Frontex, , « which guarantees for human rights ? », November 2010, p.1-48, online :

[15] FRA : Monthly data collection on the migration situation in the EU ; april 2017

[16] The AEDH questions EU agency FRONTEX during the visit of the Delegation of the European Parliament – 1st October 2010 :

[17] Europe is at war with an imaginary enemy, Frontexit campaign :