Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Anthropomorphization of Borders in Frontex’s Risk Analyses


Eline Wærp


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Eline Wærp. Eline is a PhD Student International Migration and Ethnic Relations at Malmö University. 


Scholars, media, and civil society actors have criticized the European Border and Coast Guard Agency’s (Frontex) de-humanizing treatment of refugees and migrants since its first operations in 2005 off the West African coast. The focus has been on the largest EU agency’s complicity in pushbacks at the external border and violation of fundamental rights in its operations. Less attention, however, has been given to Frontex’s inconspicuous role as a knowledge provider in EU border control, with its risk analyses informing budgetary, operational, and strategic decisions on the EU level. In my PhD research, I have examined how, despite being presented as apolitical and technical overviews of the migratory situation at the external border, Frontex’s risk analyses are underpinned by securitized ontological and epistemological assumptions, which steer responses to irregularized migration. Two aspects are central to this securitized knowledge production: the obscuring of humans, and conversely, the anthropomorphization of borders. 

Threatening and Obscured Humans 

Frontex’s risk analysis reports are characterized by a dispassionate discourse which obscures the humanness of refugees and migrants, their protection needs, and suffering at the external border. Refugees and migrants’ agency is minimized by the reports’ explanation of migration as a result of structural factors outside of their control, while the external border is given human characteristics, being described as ‘vulnerable’ to ‘migratory pressure’. The de-centering of refugees and migrants’ humanity can be seen in the 2012 report, which predicts that:  

At the southern maritime borders large flows are most likely to develop on the Central Mediterranean route due to its proximity to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, where political instability and the high unemployment rates are pushing people abroad.  

This sanitized language not only de-humanizes refugees and migrants but securitizes them as well, in turn rationalizing increased border controls in response to deaths at the EU’s common border. This is clear in the 2014 report, which describes refugees and migrants as “risks that arise at the external borders themselves and… in third countries”, being represented in the statistical annex as numbers of “illegal border-crossings” rather than people crossing. Similarly, the 2016 report describes “migration flows” from the Horn of Africa as mostly consisting of young men who are “driven by regional security issues, slow economic development, and lack of long-term livelihood options”, depriving refugees and migrants of any agency outside of these macroeconomic forces. 

This detached discourse is evident in the 2021 report’s “Third Country Overview” section as well, which ascertains that “migratory pressure” on the Eastern and Central Mediterranean routes are “a function of developments in the main origin, host and transit countries”, inferring an almost causal effect. The chapter previously termed “situational overview” has been re-named “migratory flow”, which invokes connotations to the physical process of flowing water rather than active decisions being made, further reducing the human element of migration. Referring to refugees and migrants’ mobility as “migratory pressure” and a “function” of external factors de-humanizes them and enables their subsequent securitization, since they are seen as irrational ‘risky subjects’ rather than people deserving of protection, being treated as indistinguishable parts of aggregate ‘flows’. Frontex’s risk analyses thus systematically obscure humans through its use of technocratic terminology, despite humans being at the center of its work. 

picture of a wall with barbed wire and a raffiti that says 'welcome to europe'
Credit: Wærp 2021 

Anthropomorphized Borders as the Object of Protection 

Whereas refugees and migrants are de-humanized in Frontex’s risk analyses, borders are conversely anthropomorphized. This can be seen in the 2013 report, which warns that “the internet and social networking sites will contribute to the rapid exploitation of vulnerabilities along the external border”, referring to vulnerabilities of border sections rather than refugees and migrants. In the same manner, the 2014 report stresses the “vulnerability” of land borders to “massive or emergency flows”, focusing on the protection of the EU external border itself rather than refugees and migrants.  

The report’s emphasis on the border is also evident in the re-organized table of contents, with sections relating to where someone is in relation to the border: “before the border”, “at the border”, or “after the border”. By making the ‘border’ the organizing principle of the report, it is obvious that the border is the “referent object of security” rather than the people crossing it or even being ‘protected’ by it. Frontex’s risk analyses hence elevate the inanimate object of the ‘border’ to be deserving of protection rather than the humans crossing it, which allows Frontex to simultaneously de-humanize refuges and migrants while humanizing the border.  

The anthropomorphization of borders accelerates following the 2015 ‘migration crisis’, with the 2015 report describing secondary movements as a “vulnerability for EU internal security” rather than for refugees and migrants themselves, who live under the constant threat of Dublin returns. In a similar vein, the 2016 report emphasizes persistent “vulnerabilities in detecting fraudulent documents” on intra-EU flights due to poor technical equipment, with the concern being document security rather than human security. More explicitly, the 2020 report describes refugees and migrants moving through the Balkans as “migratory pressure… projected northward”, noting that “Slovenia felt much of the pressure emanating from the region”. Whereas the state here becomes anthropoid, refugees and migrants are deprived of their human qualities, being depicted as physical forces impacting on the external border. 

Who is Vulnerable and Who Needs Protection from Whom? 

A peculiar process of discursive inversion thus takes places in Frontex’s risk analyses, where borders become sentient (like the machines in The Matrix) whereas humans are de-anthropomorphized. The external border is framed as in need of protection rather than refugees and migrants, being the referent object of purported migratory threats. This works to make increased border controls seem like a commonsensical response to irregularized migration. Moreover, Frontex’s risk analyses not only obscure the humans it seeks to protect the borders from (refugees and migrants) but also the ones these borders are supposed to protect (EUropean citizens), which are rarely mentioned in the reports. This begs the question of who needs protection from whom, and who is actually vulnerable – borders or people? 


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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

E. Wærp. (2024) The Anthropomorphization of Borders in Frontex’s Risk Analyses. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2024/05/anthropomorphization-borders-frontexs-risk-analyses. Accessed on: 17/07/2024

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