“Not alongside Frontex”: academics speak out against border collaboration


An academic at Turin Polytechnic University has denounced the institution's work for EU border agency Frontex. The campaign group LasciateCIEntrare has called on individuals and institutions "not to legitimate the violent, repressive, expelling and racialising of the European Union".

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Translation by Statewatch. Originally published here.

In July 2021, Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard agency, [1] and the Italian consortium composed by  Associazione Ithaca, DIST (Dipartimento Interateneo di Scienze, Progetto e Politiche del Territorio) of Turin Polytechnic and Ithaca Srl (a company controlled by the homonymous association) signed “an important cartographic production contract” to support European border surveillance activities. The contract lasts for 24 months, with a total budget of four million euros, and may be renewed for a maximum of a further 24 months.

The non-profit ITHACA association [2] based in Turin is part of the consortium. It was born as an applied research centre with the goal of cooperating with the World Food Programme (WFP) – the UN’s branch to provide food assistance – to distribute products and services linked to IT, “to improve the capacity of the international humanitarian community regarding early warning, swift impact assessment and other areas connected to risk management”.

Thus, the association and its namesake company switch from supporting humanitarian activities to assisting European border control operations that are implicated in violations of migrants’ rights. While this agreement is accomplished, a part of civil society is raising its voice against Frontex. On one side, there are people who ask to put an end to its role as Europe’s gendarme, for it to  undertake a mission that truly seeks to protect human lives, [3] while, on the other, some propose a campaign to dismantle the Agency and “the military-industrial complex of borders and to construct a society in which people can move and live freely”. [4]

News of the collaboration of a public university in the “production of digital cartography, infographic maps and map books useful for the Agency’s activity”, appeared on the PoliFlash portal in July, [5] and Altraeconomia carried out an investigation about it that was published on 20 October. [6] According to what the director of DIST stated, “the project fits perfectly in the Department’s strategic objective” and that of the Turin university. Replying to information requests by the media outlet to clarify what services will be offered, sources from the Polytechnic have made it known that they do not know what the final use of goods produced will be, and that they are not authorised to give interviews concerning the subject of the contract. 

The silence was broken by a firm stance taken by Michele Lancione, tenured lecturer in the DIST, who, in a text published on 24 October, [7] voiced the concern of a group of colleagues which seeks to publicly dissociate itself from the agreement signed between the Department, the Turin Polytechnic, Ithaca srl. and Frontex.

Lancione stated that it is a stance that is “not just personal, but also political”, because it is deemed impossible “to work with those who, like Frontex, push back, promote xenophobia and kill”. The lecturer expresses his dissent as a “critical academic and a citizen who is personally committed to understanding and fighting the violent policies to create and expel “Others” that govern the European approach to management of the “migrant issue”.

We consider this a clear and necessary stance to take to guarantee that a real space for critical studies is safeguarded within Italian universities and research centres.

We cannot forget that Frontex has been, and continues to be, the subject of several investigations by journalists and of criticism by associations, NGOs and activists for having allowed or participated in unlawful and violent activities to deny people entry in the EU’s maritime and land border areas. [8]

One of these allegations reached the European Court of Justice, which will have to consider the merits of a complaint concerning very serious human rights violations against migrants who have undergone collective refoulements in the Aegean Sea while they sought protection in the EU, that took place with Frontex involvement. The allegations made against the European Agency regarding violent pushbacks undertaken along the Balkan route and in the central Mediterranean are also notorious, with its aerial assets used for a surveillance that is useful for interception and return of migrants who set off from the north African coasts, enacted by the Libyan coast guard which, systematically, deports them to the torture and detention centres from which they flee. [9]

In 2021, the same Agency has been under investigation by various EU institutions.

The LIBE Committee for civil liberties, justice and home affairs of the European Parliament has created a Working and Investigation Group on the Agency’s activities (the Frontex scrutiny working group), due to the scant transparency of its administrative activities, and “for the activities to counter irregular immigration at the European Union’s external borders that do not respect the human rights of the people who are intercepted”. [10]

The European anti-fraud office (OLAF) has also opened an inquiry to shed light on its accounts that are not very transparent. In late 2020, news about the “crazy” costs of luxury and self-celebratory events emerged, amounting to 2.1m euros between 2015 and 2019. “The budget for gala events in a single year is far higher than what has been allocated by the Agency to its Fundamental Rights Office for the whole of 2020. [11] In March 2021, the commission for budgetary oversight of the European Parliament voted to delay approval of the Frontex budget for 2019. This was a symbolic gesture in response to a series of accusations that have led to questioning of the Agency’s activities.  

In June of this year, the European Court of Auditors published a report according to which Frontex has not fully enacted the mandate it received in 2016, and does not consider it ready yet to effectively enact the new operative role it was assigned in the new Regulation of 2019.

Although Frontex’s activities are spattered with administrative and accounting complaints, alongside those for very serious human rights violations, its resources and strategic role continue to grow.

From 2005 to 2021, the Frontex budget passed from 6.3 to 534 million euros, but a substantial increase is envisaged for the 2021-2027 period, when, according to the new Regulation that came into force in late 2019, apart from an increase in the powers of this “super agency”, its permanent force capacity will also be increased until it reaches 10,000 staff to deploy within the Union’s territory or outside of it.

It is of particular concern that Frontex will be involved in intelligence operations and in programmes and projects for the use of highly technological instruments for the surveillance of borders, for which it will be responsible for guaranteeing the security of data transferred and shared also with third countries to facilitate repatriations and denials of entry. [12]

Considering what has been described above, we wonder what political and ethical assessments, apart from economic ones, have led a public university to decide to collaborate with a European agency whose actions have resulted in a series of doubts about its legitimacy arising.

How many other agreements of this type have been signed by universities and research centres in cooperation with this violent European system to control, repress and expel the “Other”?

We invite Italian and European universities and research centres not to legitimate the violent, repressive, expelling and racialising of the European Union, whose politics focus on the obsessive control of borders at any cost, through the use of increasingly advanced technologies, the building of higher walls, all of which is at the expense of the respect for the rights of people on the move and human dignity.

We ask critical voices to have the courage to make themselves heard [statements of support can be sent to info [at] lasciatecientrare.it].


[1] https://frontex.europa.eu/

[2] https://www.ithacaweb.org/

[3] https://fragdenstaat.de/en/blog/2021/08/24/defund-frontex-build-sar/

[4] https://abolishfrontex.org/

[5] https://poliflash.polito.it/in_ateneo/politecnico_e_ithaca_insieme_per_la_produzione_di_cartografia_per_l_agenzia_europea_frontex

[6] https://altreconomia.it/il-politecnico-di-torino-a-fianco-di-frontex-sul-rispetto-dei-diritti-umani-intanto-cade-il-silenzio/

[7] https://altreconomia.it/non-a-fianco-di-frontex-chi-si-dissocia-dallaccordo-del-politecnico-di-torino/

[8] https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2020/10/23/frontex-at-fault-european-border-force-complicit-in-illegal-pushbacks/

[9] https://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/libya-how-frontex-helps-haul-migrants-back-to-libyan-torture-camps-a-d62c3960-ece2-499b-8a3f-1ede2eaefb83; https://www.a-dif.org/2021/07/09/chi-comanda-le-missioni-europee-che-collaborano-con-i-libici-nel-blocco-dei-migranti-nel-mediterraneo-centrale/

[10] https://www.a-dif.org/2021/05/25/ricorso-alla-corte-di-giustizia-dellunione-europea-per-i-respingimenti-illegali-in-egeo/

[11] https://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/dalle-feste-milionarie-violenze-migranti-e-bufera-sull-agenzia-ue-frontex-ADgXDxEB

[12]  https://www.a-dif.org/2021/04/22/frontex-e-guardia-costiera-libica-tra-law-enforcement-ed-omissione-di-soccorso/#_ftn5

 Image: mw238, CC BY-SA 2.0

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