Guest post by Covadonga Bachiller López and Niamh Keady-Tabbal. Covadonga is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Early-Stage researcher at Teesside University. Her Ph.D. project explores the ground-level realities of border enforcement through an ethnographic study of Frontex. Niamh is a Ph.D. researcher at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, focusing on access to asylum procedures and border violence on the Aegean. She has investigated pushbacks at the Greek maritime border and is involved in a recent submission to the European Court of Human Rights challenging these practices.

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Lookout point on Chios island, Greece

The Aegean Sea, separating Turkey from Greece’s ‘hotspot’ islands, is a site of longstanding and increasingly visible border violence: the systematic use of inflatable life rafts by the Hellenic Coast Guard to push people back to Turkey has been widely documented since March last year. This maritime borderzone also stages the operational theatre of Frontex Joint Operation Poseidon, under which patrol boats, helicopters and surveillance planes have been deployed to patrol the extensive breadth of water. 

Frontex repeatedly denied any involvement in these pushbacks (see here and here), stressing its commitment to the protection, promotion and fulfilment of fundamental rights. This ‘modus operandi’ in which fundamental rights become a rhetorical defence could no longer hold after investigative reporters showed visual evidence of Frontex’s complicit role in pushbacks, prompting further media scrutiny and pressure by the European Parliament and Commission.

In November, Efsyn, a Greek media outlet, published an eighteen-page long Frontex internal document addressed to the agency’s Management Board. The document aimed at answering questions by Member States and the Commission about the on-going pushbacks in the Aegean. The document, which fuelled Frontex’s recent internal inquiry, lists a series of  so-called ‘incidents' and, at times, offers detailed accounts of the previously denied pushbacks. However, these were not recorded as such. 

A closer look at the document reveals numerous ‘JORA incidents’ classified as ‘prevention of departure’, as this transcript from August 19, 2020, illustrates: 

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The Joint Operations Reporting Application (JORA) is the main information system that collects and stores all ‘border related incidents’ from Frontex joint operations. Such incidents range from Search and Rescue (SAR) operations, interceptions, Serious Incident Reports to, as the one above, so-called preventions of departure. The leaked document contains twenty of the latter, all following a similar pattern: Firstly, the location of the rubber boat is recorded in Turkish territorial waters; second, Frontex assets are “excused from the scene” after detection; and, finally, a rehearsed ending: the boat “altered course on her own initiative/will and headed towards the Turkish coasts” or, alternately, the Turkish Coast Guard “took over responsibility”. 

Importantly, these JORA incidents coexist with the regular documenting of border violence. Descriptions of boats of asylum-seekers returning to Turkey of their own volition jar with regular testimonies describing the coercive methods employed to push them back. Alarm Phone, Aegean Boat Report and Border Violence Monitoring Network document human rights violations occurring at the same border, on the same dates and, often, at the same time as the JORA incidents. 

On the same day as the JORA incident above: 

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Logging the border

JORA incidents, together with information collected via Eurosur, form the backbone of Europe’s external borders and migration situational picture, Frontex’s narrative of the border. Yet, what is and is not accounted for in JORA and how, has not received much attention. Contrary to the few Serious Incident Reports related to violations of fundamental rights, which are dealt with by the Fundamental Rights Officer and presented to the Management Board, other incidents recorded in JORA don’t reach the public domain. Once inserted and validated, they become a dot on a map at the Frontex Situation Centre in Warsaw. They are devised to feed into risk analyses, maps and weekly analytical overviews.

This ‘business-as-usual’ mode of reporting is mostly done by a few officers from the host Member State-- in Greece, by the Hellenic Coast Guard and Police--who insert incidents into a standardised template through a set of rigid, mandatory fields. Reporting is not done by the officers on the patrol boats but mostly those who sit at coordination centres. Once inserted in the system, incidents are sent to the International Coordination Centre and the Frontex Situation Centre where they are cross-checked with reports from both Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex deployed officers for validation. This validation process does not statically move in one direction; incidents can go back and forth in the validation chain.  The final validation is done by a “specialized team of experts” at Frontex headquarters as the leaked document explains. Yet, incidents can be re-initiated and modified even after finalisation (see work by Pollozek).

The design of the system allows for the rehearsed recording of formulaic bordering practices that, if closely examined, resemble its coexistent violent forms. Shading into the routine, the JORA records circulate regularly from the islands to Piraeus and Warsaw. While the full JORA archive is inaccessible to the public, the reviewed incidents give us insight into how a particular doctrine of border enforcement is being sustained by the agency and to what effects. 

Normalising violence, eroding rights

The effects of these records arguably extend beyond the tactical level of border policing. Through their production, a narrative arc is formed by the recorded incidents, generating a specific mode of understanding. Data must be made intelligible to the JORA system and officials along the chain before it can be validated. As a result, even acts of violence such as pushbacks can get translated into mundane logs and thus, brought within the remit of everyday border enforcement and legality. 

The leaked document asserts that the “the notion of ‘prevention of departure”, according to which these ‘incidents’ are classified, should be interpreted “in conjunction with the provisions of Regulation 656/2014, in particular Articles 6 and 7”. While the precise legal meaning of this category in this context remains unclear, its ramifications for the right to leave a country are concerning. 

Regulation 656/2014 indeed provides legal basis (in certain factual circumstances) for the interception of boats carrying asylum-seekers. Yet, it clearly stipulates that the actions that official entities may lawfully take to enforce the border must be compliant with their obligations under EU and international law, including, inter alia, international human rights and refugee law. Moreover, it states: “This Regulation should not affect the responsibilities of search and rescue authorities, including for ensuring that coordination and cooperation is conducted in such a way that the persons rescued can be delivered to a place of safety.”

The records, however, present an account of border enforcement that exists in isolation from human rights and humanitarian commitments. The dangerous conditions in which border enforcement takes place and the vulnerability of asylum seekers to these conditions are rendered irrelevant and thereby, banalised.  Rubber boats carrying illegalized migrants are generally considered seaworthy, not recognised as in distress, regardless of how many people they carry or the fluctuating weather conditions in the Aegean. In none of the incidents contained in the leaked document was a SAR triggered by the Hellenic Coast Guard or Frontex. In this sense, JORA acts as a mediator that transforms, translates, distorts and modifies the meaning of these ‘incidents’. Through the designation of bureaucratic categories (e.g. prevention of departure), JORA codifies and transforms situations that should trigger humanitarian and human rights obligations into legitimate practices of border control. In the process, the duty to render assistance at sea is distorted, and the obligation to facilitate access to asylum is obscured. 

In the context of on-going internal discussions about the legality of interceptions at sea, Frontex’s internal records reveal the practices deemed acceptable by the agency and their interpretation of international legal obligations. The records provide insight into a vision of border enforcement, crystallised at the boundaries of the global north, that perpetuates the violent securitisation of borders to the detriment of human mobility, dignity and safety. They carve out a space where border control activities are shielded from scrutiny, erasing human rights from the operational script. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Bachiller López, C. and Keady-Tabbal, N. (2021). Validating Border Violence on the Aegean: Frontex’s Internal Records. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/01/validating-border [date]