Frontex and the Politics of Counting Migrants

The Europe Union’s immigration agency, Frontex, was operationalized in 2005 to ‘improve the integrated management of the Union’s external borders and enhance cooperation between national border authorities’.[1] The agency manages external European borders, coordinating surveillance and ‘rapid-response’ protocols. Recent figures released by the agency calculated that more than 710,000 migrants have crossed into EU territory in the first nine months of 2015. These figures however, are considerably higher than the numbers released by both the UN and the International Organization for Migration who instead put estimated migrant arrivals at 590,000[2]. After calls for clarification, Frontex admitted that the discrepancy could be attributed to their methods of detection.[3]

Image courtesy of CAFOD © 2015, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of CAFOD © 2015, some rights reserved.

Frontex records each border crossing as a new migrant; however, migrants regularly cross multiple borders in their journey. Often, migrants enter EU territory initially through Greece before re-entering through Hungary on towards their destination. Frontex’s recording methods were first clarified for the public on a Twitter exchange between the agency, and a lecturer at Birgmingam, Dr Nando Sigona.[4]  Sigona raised the possibility of double counting and Frontex quickly replied with ‘@nandosigona Monthly figure includes all detections @ EU external borders. People arriving in Greece would again be counted entering Hungary’. [5] Frontex did not pledge to sharpen their measures or re-affirm their commitment to accuracy. Instead, they effectively dismissed the discrepancy as irrelevant, issuing a disclaimer to their statements clarifying that ‘that a large number of the people who were counted when they arrived in Greece were again counted when entering the EU for the second time’.[6] This exchange occurred largely off of the public radar and has been only fleetingly addressed by the media. Despite the acknowledged double counting, Frontex’s figures remain splashed across headlines, significantly influencing public understandings of the crisis and shaping expectations for government intervention.

Beginning with a budget of €6.3m (£4.4m) in 2005, Frontex’s funding has surged exponentially, hitting €115m (£81.9m) this year.[7] This dramatic spike in funding has been used to develop and execute increasingly militarized border securitization strategies.[8] This April, €120m (£57m) was dedicated to Frontex’s Operation Triton, the Mediterranean border operation that replaced Italy’s Mare Nostrum.[9] This increase restores Triton’s funding to that of Mare Nostrum, yet Triton’s funds remain reappropriated, emphasising patrol and surveillance rather than search and rescue. [10] Frontex’s border operations mobilize military aircraft, helicopters, and personnel to intercept and divert undocumented migrants.[11] Migrants become ‘targets’ for intervention, and risk analyses are routinely conducted to gauge their movements.[12] Approaches to immigration have clearly placed a significant emphasis on securing external borders when, in reality, national data shows that most irregular migrants enter the EU legally, only to later overstay their visa.[13] With state leaders referring to migrants as ‘swarms’, ‘floods’ and ‘marauders’, the discourse surrounding such border control has served to dehumanise asylum seekers, legitimising operations that conceive of migrants as ‘targets’. [14]

The dehumanising language circulated by Frontex and state leaders fails to illustrate the reality of incoming migrants. The rise in asylum seekers and refugees at the border needs to be addressed, as it stands, the total population of incoming migrants that would qualify for asylum likely stands at 70 per cent.[15] These migrants are most commonly fleeing from Syria, Eritrea, and Afghanistan, nations torn apart by war, political oppression, and religious extremism.[16] Since January, Syrian nationals comprise 53 per cent of European arrivals and statistically, they are the most likely to come from professional backgrounds, many are university educated and at least 15 per cent of the refugees that have arrived this year are children.[17] As Europe is currently undergoing a demographic transition, many World Bank reports argue that incoming migrant populations fill a much-needed gap in the work force, fuelling, rather than stagnating the economy. [18]

Globally however, displaced Syrians are far more likely to have travelled to nations outside of the EU. Lebanon houses 1.2 million Syrian refugees, or 26.67 per cent of their total population.[19] Europe’s refugees on the other hand, make up .027 per cent of the total EU population.[20] Globally, an estimated 13.9 million people were newly displaced in 2014 due to either conflict or persecution.[21] These numbers show that Europe is only experiencing a small fraction of a global crisis.

As of June 2015, the United Kingdom had absorbed 187 Syrian refugees.[22] By September, the government had pledged to grant an additional 20,000 Syrians refugee status by 2020.[23] According to Phillip Hammond, UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, this figure has been determined to be the maximum number of migrants that the United Kingdom could sustainably integrate without risking the economy, or ‘social fabric’ of the nation.[24] However, if the levels of funding being redirected towards border control and deportation efforts are anything to go on, finances are not an issue. Since 2000, estimates have put spending as high as €11bn (£7.83 bn) towards deportation and repatriation, while Britain’s ‘generous’ social benefit system grants asylum seekers £36.50 weekly.[25] These benefits remain less than 0.1 per cent of the UK’s total benefit spending. Asylum seekers in France receive up to £56.62 weekly and Germany and Sweden, Europe’s most popular migrant destinations, respectively grant £35.21 and £36.84 per week.[26]

The first step in developing policies to address the recent spikes in displaced persons is to accurately depict the true impact of such populations. An acknowledgement of double-counting is not enough, rather than circulating inflated figures, Frontex should be working to address gaps in monitoring systems. Migrant arrivals are much lower than represented by the agency, border control costs remain higher than the benefits offered, and dehumanising language reduces displaced persons to threatening ‘swarms’ and ‘floods’ rather than a diverse group invigorating Europe’s culture, population, and economy.




[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.






[12] Ibid.




[16] ibid.




[20] ibid.






[26] ibid.

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