June 17, 2024

Column | The Blurred Lines of Border Management: Frontex in Africa 

One of the EU’s biggest partners for border management has been countries across North and West Africa.

Frontex - European Border and Coast Guard Officers. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A boat packed full of migrants crossing the Mediterranean encounters two things on its journey: seemingly endless ocean water and planes in the sky. In many cases, these planes hovering above migrant boats are operated by Frontex, the European Union’s border management agency. With Frontex’s increasing presence in the air, the complex dynamics of European migration control have raised concerns about human rights violations and unintended consequences. In recent years, Frontex has been more present in the air than on land. In 2020, the agency completed “1,000 missions amounting to over 4,700 flying hours of surveillance.” Once spotted by Frontex aircraft, boat coordinates are sent out via WhatsApp to coast guard agencies of nearby countries. Usually, this means Frontex forwards coordinates to the Libyan Coast Guard. 

Border management in the EU increasingly relies on the work of countries across Africa to halt migration, or in the case of the Libyan Coast Guard, to turn migrants in the Mediterranean around and bring them back to Africa. Like most Frontex initiatives, the move to externalize EU border management to Africa has not been without its failures. Frontex’s expanding role in Africa has occurred under the auspices of preventing human smuggling and clamping down on irregular migration. The reality, however, reveals vast failures and the emergence of unintended consequences for the entire region. Relying on Libya’s Coast Guard to retrieve migrants at sea has led to over 91 deaths—91 extremely preventable deaths had Frontex instead shared coordinates with private rescue ships or nearby merchant vessels already in the area. These tragic incidents are no longer one-off occurrences but have become the new normal in the region. 

Frontex in West Africa 

The focus of EU efforts to control migration in West Africa stems from the massive increase in irregular migration across the West African route. The migratory path stretches from Sub-Saharan Africa to Morocco and eventually leads migrants to Spain’s Canary Islands. The number of migrants taking this route to Europe has increased by 95% between 2022 and 2023, with over 27,000 migrants making the journey between January and October of 2023. However, even before crossings reached record numbers, Frontex began to play an active role in the region. This started in 2010 with the establishment of the Africa-Frontex Intelligence Community (AFIC). This agreement brings together Frontex with 31 nations across Africa to increase information sharing and dissemination of technology to track irregular migration better. AFIC has prided itself on establishing state-of-the-art surveillance programs across West Africa specifically. One such example is the Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED), a surveillance system capable of retrieving call history, WhatsApp messages, and exact GPS coordinates from any cell phone. Designed originally by Israeli tech company Cellebrite to catch criminal groups around the world, the technology has found a new purpose in West Africa: stopping migrants who are trying to get to Europe. Across countries such as Senegal and Mauritania, border checkpoints where officials receive training from Frontex utilize this tool. The AFIC agreement has increased collaboration between Frontex and governments in West Africa, as it promotes communication about the movement of migrants. Constant surveillance acts as a breeding ground for rights violations and encourages the policing of all movement of people in the region. 

Beyond information sharing, Frontex has also prioritized the establishment of new norms in the region to halt migration. With the overzealous assistance of the EU in 2015, Niger passed a monumental law aimed at halting human smuggling at its borders. The implementation of the law saw Niger receive EU development funds that were conditional on the Nigerien government blocking northern migration routes out of its country. After passing laws in Niger, Frontex has set its eyes on establishing a permanent force in Senegal and Mauritania, a move that would mimic similar agreements Frontex has with Balkan countries. The proposed agreements would allow Frontex agents to work within the country and would grant them immunity for any crimes committed in West Africa. The latter plans exist only as proposals today, but Frontex is actively pushing for their implementation. 

The ultimate aim of Frontex’s West Africa policy is to externalize migration management to the African continent and stop migrants before they get close to stepping on a boat and reaching an EU border. Unfortunately, this policy brings little benefit for the African nations involved as it directly works against the political goals of each country and creates new avenues for human rights abuses. A concern best encapsulated by Ousmane Diallo, a researcher with Amnesty International’s West Africa bureau: “If the police have this technology at their disposal to track migrants, there is nothing to ensure it won’t be used to target others, such as civil society or political actors.”

EU: Frontex’s lack of transparency on Libyan cooperation to be heard in court. Image Credit: DPA Germany.

Border Management Backfiring for West Africa 

“Niger is now the southern border of Europe,” A sentiment shared by one EU ambassador when asked about EU migration policy in West Africa, and a worrisome sign for the bloc’s intentions in the region. Frontex’s work of drafting legislation, creating systems of constant communication, and sending its agents to permanent postings in Africa is the epitome of neocolonialism. Frontex does not view Niger or any of its partners in West Africa as sovereign states; rather, it sees them as transit points for migrants. The power dynamic remains deeply unequal as Frontex is essentially bribing governments in Africa to prioritize EU demands over those of its domestic population. 

A key example lies in the 2015 human smuggling law in Niger. In practice, this law does not combat a rampant human smuggling industry; it restricts the once-free movement of migrants across borders. In cities such as Agadez in Niger, taxi drivers, and bus drivers make a living off of driving migrants across the border, and up until 2015, this was legal. Now, those same drivers are facing prison sentences of up to 30 years and have been labeled as human smugglers. Frontex is aware of this discrepancy. When helping to create this law, Frontex went on record admitting that “human traffickers in Agadez see themselves as service providers. Attempts to combat this growing industry could trigger local protests.” Knowingly disrupting a local economic system to suit the needs of the EU is a violation of Niger’s autonomy, and Frontex uses its ever-growing budget to push countries into agreement with its policy proposals. Not only did this 2015 law violate norms in Niger, it also was declared a violation of the official charter of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). ECOWAS member states, which includes Niger, have agreements similar to the Schengen Area in the EU that guarantee freedom of movement across member states borders. The human smuggling law that cut off movements across Nigeria’s borders blatantly violated this agreement. Frontex policies in West Africa place regional agreements as a second-rate priority, establishing a dangerous precedent regarding Frontex’s respect for African sovereignty. 

Conceding to the power of the EU has resulted in dire consequences for African leaders. In Niger, a military coup in July of 2023 was a direct result of public dissatisfaction with the then-president Mohamed Bazoum’s cooperation with the EU on migration. The Frontex report that predicted local protests underestimated the opposition that would emerge — perhaps nationwide revolution is a more fitting term. Immediately following the military takeover, the EU suspended all migration activities with Niger, but more notably, in November of 2023, the military government in Niger suspended the 2015 law. While the political conflict in Niger is multifaceted and anger with the past government extends beyond its cooperation with Frontex, this was a key factor in the takeover, as reflected by the junta’s work to overturn the law. The EU continues to frame military takeovers in West Africa as a threat to democracy across the continent. These takeovers could also represent a growing urge to reject the increasing influence of the EU across the continent. Rebellion is a response to border externalization policies that give EU officials the confidence to claim there are European borders in Africa. 

The Road Ahead 

Despite all efforts by Frontex, the flow of migrants to the EU is only increasing. 2023 was the deadliest year for migrants crossing the Mediterranean since 2017. Yet, the EU remains focused solely on stopping migration, paying little to no attention to clamping down on the root causes of such mass exodus. Throwing money at West African governments or tracking boats with expensive planes and advanced surveillance technology does not stop civil conflicts, poverty, or the activity of terrorist groups. To stop migration, the EU must adopt a new approach and revamp the work of Frontex to suit EU human rights principles better. Only then will the migration crisis truly come to an end.

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