Border Agency Recruitment: Circulating Narratives that Criminalize Asylum and Erase Border Violence

Border Agency Recruitment: Circulating Narratives that Criminalize Asylum and Erase Border Violence

Eleanor Paynter and Sara Riva

In mid-August, EU border agency Frontex released Frontex Up Close, a promotional video that showcases the agency’s technological prowess and doubles as a recruitment tool for its new battalion of border agents. With commercial polish, the six-minute publicity stunt reveals how the agency is positioning itself for the coming decade, bolstered by significant financial and political support for its expansion. Its message is straightforward: borders are dangerous sites of criminality, European citizens are at great risk, and Frontex’s work, reflecting the joint efforts of EU nations, is the only way to combat the dangers lurking just outside Europe’s borders.

Frontex Up Close opens with a montage of surveillance footage as a voiceover cites a litany of crimes: “Drug trafficking. People smuggling. Fake documents and identity fraud. Stolen vehicles and trafficking in human beings. These are only some of the many challenges Europe faces at its borders.” The video goes on to describe how Frontex is confronting these challenges, highlighting the agency’s new standing corps, “Europe’s first uniformed service,” and interspersing images of drones and monitoring devices that underscore the message of constant border surveillance with the latest technology. Europe’s problems are at its borders, the video argues, and Frontex has the equipment to respond, as well as, now, the manpower – though the video does include a few carefully placed images of uniformed women at border checkpoints.

While it is hardly surprising that a border agency would use recruitment tools to solidify its importance in the eyes of national publics, it is critical to recognize how the specific narratives Frontex uses to construct its public image reflect broader shifts in migration governance throughout the Global North. Beyond its recruitment potential, the video circulates a set of institutional values that reinforce anti-immigrant ideologies in a time of economic and public health crises. As we discuss in our work on potential solutions to displacement, how migrant reception holds asylum-seekers in precarity, and the violence experienced by those who seek asylum, discourses and narrative representation shape material realities. In depicting the scope and modes of Frontex’s mission, the new video, released just over a month before the announcement of the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, illustrates Europe’s approach to migration as a matter of border security. It normalizes the criminalization of migration and writes border externalization practices into the agency’s everyday functioning, without ever citing the deaths that result from these practices, or the asylum processes they preclude.

More specifically, Frontex Up Close markets the criminalization of migrants through racialized representations, relying on gendered and racialized tropes that establish refugees as a threat to the receiving nation and justify turning away asylum-seekers before they even file a claim. Asylum-seekers and refugees – never explicitly recognized as such – appear in one of two ways. First, they are anonymous subjects crowded onto a rubber dingy about to be rescued – an image immediately followed by mention of Frontex’s successful deportation practices. Otherwise, they appear in the inverted contrast of security night shots, bright white figures traversing a black wooded landscape in single file. A target remains fixed on the group as the camera traces their movements. Critically, no mention is made of the fact that these abstracted figures have fled war, violence, and extreme precarity and hope to obtain international protection in Europe, or that claiming asylum is their right.

By criminalizing migrants, border agencies reframe migration governance in terms of security, legitimizing the culture of suspicion directed at asylum seekers and refugees who attempt to enter Global North countries. Criminalization and racialization go hand in hand in the Frontex narrator’s distinction between “migrants” – Black subjects crowded into unseaworthy vessels, shown only in the grainy images shot by drones – and “travellers” – the largely white bodies shown moving through airports, their high resolution movements blurred only to suggest the swift strides of business class passengers. The job of Frontex, viewers learn, is to intercept the former and facilitate the movements of the latter.

Frontex Up Close also normalizes border externalization practices, claiming the use of foreign outposts as a commonsense and practical diplomatic strategy: in its mandate to secure geopolitical borders and keep unwanted foreigners out, Frontex has established strongholds abroad. With so much of current migration to Europe originating in former colonies, it is striking to see externalization illustrated through a series of lines extending from Frontex headquarters in Warsaw to Albania, Senegal, and Nigeria – lines that overtly recall those drawn to represent colonial campaigns.

The segment outlining externalization strategically omits Libya, one of Europe’s biggest partners in border control and one that offers all-too-frequent examples of how border externalization in fact disavows state responsibility for providing rescue and aid, while increasing the risks and violence migrants experience while in transit – circumstances through which EU nations fail to fulfill their obligations as signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. In July, Italy renewed its agreement with Libya. Funding its former colony, currently in the midst of civil conflict, in order to task them with border control duties, Italy also blatantly ignored the human rights abuses that migrants suffer in detention there. A few days after the Frontex video was released, the Mediterranean saw the largest shipwreck documented so far this year, as at least 45 people drowned near the Libyan coast, their boat shot at by another vessel. Survivors, rescued by local fishermen, were returned to Libya and detained there without access to medical care.

These incidents are a critical part of the realities of Europe’s border dynamics, and their omission from Frontex’s self-representation exemplifies the genre of border agency propaganda, which forwards a transnational ideology of anti-immigrant sentiment through select narration and strategic representation. Illustrating the adaptability of the form, the Frontex video employs many of the same tropes used in promotional materials for ICE in the US. The ICE recruitment video currently in use emphasizes border agents’ access to high-tech equipment (and weapons) and represents migrants as handcuffed deportees. If Frontex promotion has the polish of a multinational tech firm commercial, the ICE video instead draws heavily on the aesthetics of true-crime cop shows: Agents don bulletproof vests and cock pistols; night shots pan city streets from inside a patrol car or peer over a backyard fence; floating text tells viewers that ICE “protects US citizens from illegal aliens”. In a similar vein, a recently circulated US Border Patrol video portrays a fictional account of an undocumented migrant killing an unsuspecting man in a gruesome, bloody attack. Closing with the question “Do you know who got away?”, the video promotes associations of migrants with criminality and violence. Despite their stylistic differences, the EU- and US-based videos are a stark reminder that border agencies not only enact the policies handed down to them by governments; they actively write the narratives justifying their existence.

We know that border policing is driven by racial profiling and that the rapid expansion of these standing corps can be accompanied by corruption and misconduct. What’s especially important to recognize in today’s recruitment materials is how agencies craft public buy-in to broader narratives about who migrants are and who embodies national belonging. In doing so, videos like these reflect the depoliticization of migration systems, as border policing and migrant apprehension appear without reference to the violent structures underpinning the migration apparatus. While these omissions are perhaps unsurprising, they are still telling: no mention of states’ implication in the violence prompting people’s displacement, of leaders’ disregard for international obligations vis-a-vis this population, or of the violence of detention and deportation. By depoliticizing migration management, these videos position viewers to perceive the arrival of asylum-seekers as a “problem” to be handled by a professional “all-uniformed” team of experts, rather than a call to attend to people’s need for protection and states’ responsibilities for upholding human rights.

It is no coincidence that this kind of promotional material circulates in the period defined by what Alison Mountz calls “the death of asylum” as EU nations, like Australia, the US, and other Global North countries, restrict immigration, dismantle asylum systems, and tighten borders. And it is especially important to recognize the extent to which these processes have continued, if not accelerated, during the pandemic. Frontex Up Close, produced recently enough that it includes explicit references to Covid-19, seizes on the now prevalent associations of asylum-seekers with national crises.

These efforts come as governments use the pandemic to tighten borders and hold migrants at bay. In the US, the Trump administration has suspended visa programs, and ICE has turned away tens of thousands of migrants and deported covid-positive migrants. At Europe’s southern borders, Greece has extended lockdown for migrants in camps and pushed others back to sea, even as the country reopened for tourists. Following the recent fire in Moria, many refugees and asylum-seekers there remain homeless, without access to basic resources that have become even more critical during the pandemic. Italy and Malta have quarantined arriving migrants on ships, sites likely to serve as virus hotspots. Meanwhile, more migrants are arriving via Tunisia and the Balkans, while tensions with Turkey raise questions about the control of maritime borders. And in the UK, recent Channel crossings from France have returned precarious migration to center-stage.

As the pandemic fixes global attention on mobility and border issues, we might have a chance to challenge the exclusionary regulations that have maligned all but elite migrants and legitimized states’ outright disregard for individual safety and well-being. In the US, the new Netflix series Immigration Nation documents the violent realities of the US immigration system and offers a counter-narrative to anti-immigrant rhetoric that celebrates ICE – one that ICE itself challenged by attempting to block the series’ release, despite having agreed to its terms. In Europe, Black Lives Matter demonstrations have centered the lives and rights of those crossing the Mediterranean Sea. But Frontex Up Close reminds us that as border agencies plan for the future, asylum is not on the agenda. The EU’s Migration and Asylum Pact, released last week under the EU priority area “Promoting our European way of life,” seems to affirm this point, including through its emphasis on rapid-processing for migrants identified upon arrival as unlikely to be granted asylum. These policies, like changes to migration and border governance proposed and implemented in the US in recent months, will outlast the pandemic, and it remains as critical as ever to respond to the erasure of ongoing border violence from portrayals of the realities of migration and border dynamics.


Eleanor Paynter studies displacement, asylum, and migrant testimony, focusing on Africa-Europe mobilities and the Black Mediterranean. She’s currently a postdoctoral associate with Cornell University’s Migrations initiative and the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. Twitter: @ebpaynterSara Riva is a feminist and a border abolitionist. She currently holds a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research fellowship and is interested in the intersection of neoliberalism, humanitarianism, neocolonialism, and migration. Twitter: @Riva_Sara_

Image: US Department of Defense