Perkowski, N. (2021) Humanitarianism, Human Rights and Security: The Case of Frontex

In: Public Anthropologist
Valentina Benincasa Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Madrid, Spain

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Perkowski, N. (2021). Humanitarianism, Human Rights and Security: The Case of Frontex. Routledge.

Over the last twenty years, the architecture of migration control has rapidly grown and spread across the globe. In the process, political borders have been transformed into geographic and symbolic spaces where migration is violently controlled and contained. Research in the social sciences has shown how these structures are increasingly associated with narratives of humanitarianism and human rights, giving rise to contradictory, highly complex and changing dynamics. This humanitarization of borders1 does not occur in every part of the world that experiences migration, but rather in specific migration corridors, such as the Mediterranean route and the route linking Central America and Mexico to the United States. Increasingly restrictive migration policies bring about rapid changes to these migration and border settings, calling for researchers to explore the actors, narratives and operational dynamics involved in the multiple facets of the migration control architecture.

Humanitarianism, Human Rights and Security: the Case of Frontex by Nina Perkowski falls within the scope of this framework and focuses on Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, as a case study. Frontex is a public agency with a European Union mandate and funding that oversees the control and management of internal and external European borders and is a key stakeholder in European migration management. With reference to the case study, Perkowski analyzes the intersections between three categories that she identifies as crucial in the construction of Frontex as a European public actor: security, humanitarianism and human rights. Exploring these concepts in depth to support her analysis, she draws on debates surrounding the sociology of organizations, studies of security agencies and relevant discussions in the social sciences.

The book comprises a total of seven chapters: an introduction, a theoretical and methodological chapter that aims to contextualize and reconstruct the links between security, humanitarianism and human rights (chapter 1), four analytical chapters (chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5) and a final chapter of reflections and conclusions. Perkowski’s analysis is based on a cinematographic perspective, with three “takes”: chapters 2, 3 and 4. These “takes” are used to present a “multidimensional approach to the study of Frontex” (p. 41), breaking the agency down into three different facets or dimensions. In chapter 2, the author analyzes the creation and expansion of Frontex from the perspective of the social sciences literature on the security agency. The purpose of this chapter is to highlight the ways in which the divergent interests that come together under Frontex shape the agency’s environment and identity. In chapter 3, the author analyzes the agency’s institutional narrative and identity (p. 63) by examining official documents and publications in an attempt to understand how it constructs and presents itself to the public. More specifically, the chapter focuses on the evolution of Frontex since it was founded in 2004 and the way in which it has gradually incorporated humanitarian narratives and respect for human rights into its functions, demonstrating its ability to adapt to a changing political context. Finally, in chapter 4, the author presents fieldwork carried out from May 2013 to September 2014 in Italy and Bulgaria, based on in-depth interviews, participant observation at official events and informal conversations with Frontex employees. Echoing the author’s stated objectives, her account explores the agency’s development from different angles, ranging from institutional discourse to employees’ internal narratives. Chapter 5 pulls the three “takes” analyzed by the author together.

In this review, I would like to reflect on the methodology used by the author. Perkowski provides a very clear, detailed explanation of her methodology, which includes tools such as document analysis, semi-structured interviews, participant observation and informal conversations. She also discusses the limitations she identified during her research. It is important to point out here that her chosen case study is highly complex: Frontex is a security actor that is very hard to research. The author’s accounts of “field accidents” and multiple negative responses from Frontex to her interview requests show how hard it can be to conduct research with this type of stakeholder. In this regard, the decision to construct her methodology in such a way as to analyze the multiple facets of the agency is based on the complexities of the chosen case study and on her ability to gain access to the agency for research purposes. As a result, and I consider this to be the book’s most relevant methodological contribution, the “takes” enable information from Frontex/European institutional discourse and the field-based narratives of the agency’s employees to be compared and contrasted. This approach allows the author to identify important tensions deriving from Frontex’s contradictory mandate, which is a source of conflict, criticism and contradiction.

The author’s analysis makes an important contribution to the debate in the social sciences on organizations and migration control logics. Her work clearly reveals the divergent political processes that have come together in Frontex as it has developed as an agency. By comparing institutional narratives (chapter 3) with the agency’s internal narratives (chapter 4), an important source of tension can be identified: Frontex employees and agents do not recognize themselves in the mandate that is promoted at the European discursive level. Frontex is presented as the agency in charge of “saving lives”, but this narrative does not reflect the work carried out by its employees, which is primarily framed within the paradigms of security, defense and border control. This tension is evidenced in two main dynamics. On the one hand, humanitarian and human rights discourses are appropriated and instrumentalized by actors who, in practice, respond to a security agenda. As the author shows throughout her book, these discourses reflect the need to legitimize the existence and work of Frontex as a European public agency funded by the European Union. On the other hand, at the European level, the convergence of varied, disparate interests limits the ability of European Union member states to find effective ways to address migration as part of a human rights and humanitarian agenda. Instead, these states struggle to move beyond their national paradigms and find effective common agreements allowing them to pool and share responsibilities. The discursive construction of Frontex’s “human face” dilutes these responsibilities and delegates them to the agency in a narrative that positions it as solely responsible for containing the political issue of migration in Europe.

From a more critical perspective, the analysis of data and information in the book is somewhat descriptive. I am referring specifically here to chapter 4, which analyzes the data collected during the author’s fieldwork, and chapter 5, which brings together the three dimensions analyzed in chapters 2, 3 and 4. In her book, the author identifies several very interesting and illuminating categories of the work carried out by Frontex and the different ways in which employees understand and construct this work. However, I consider that the analysis of the links between security, humanitarianism and human rights could have been further explored. I believe that the exercise in conceptualization performed by the author in the first few chapters of the book is an important tool for analyzing the specific ways in which this nexus is reflected in the perceptions of the people interviewed, in contrast to the official narrative. In relation to this, I think that there is a need for a more in-depth analysis of the central tension identified by the author between Frontex’s institutional narratives and employees’ understanding of the agency’s mandate. What implications does this tension have for Frontex’s work?

How does Frontex position itself within the global migration control architecture? I would like to conclude this review by emphasizing that Humanitarianism, Human Rights and Security: the Case of Frontex provides us with tools for analyzing and understanding one of the leading actors in European and global migration management. It presents a case study that is highly relevant in elucidating changes and continuities in the international migration agenda and their local implications. I believe that it is also important to relate this analysis to migrants’ experiences and explore how changes to Frontex’s operating methods and narratives affect transit and reception. An in-depth understanding of Frontex’s narratives, operational dynamics and employee perspectives as changing, dynamic elements provide us with a foundation for new avenues of research. I believe that it would be interesting to research the perspectives of other actors directly related to Frontex, including agents working at European institutions such as the European Parliament, non-governmental organizations, human rights and humanitarian associations, and the international organizations that operate in the field of migration and migration assistance. In addition, the book may be used as a basis for comparison with other actors involved in migration control and containment, such as European and international institutions. As we know, research of this kind is urgent and fundamental in order to enhance our understanding of the operational dynamics of migration control and the implications of its growing links to a humanitarianized migration agenda.


De Lauri, A. (2019). A Critique of the Humanitarian (B)order of Things. Journal of Identity and Migration Studies, 13(2): 148–166.

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