The fight to keep Frontex out of our universities continues.
In the summer of 2021, my Department (DIST) at the Politecnico di Torino signed a contract to produce cartography for Frontex (the European Coast Guard and Border Agency). The agreement – passed without any problems in the Department’s Council – was presented as one of the best representations of research excellence at DIST (see the original press release here).
With (very few) colleagues, we contested the contract but to no avail. At that point, the same was the subject of a series of enquiries by journalist Luca Rondi of Altreconomia, to which was added my public stance of denunciation. This was followed by numerous articles in national and international media, as well as student demonstrations, collective meetings and mobilisations to push the Polytechnic to terminate the contract. The reasons that make this agreement unacceptable are related to the work of Frontex: already in the summer of 2021 it was evident that the agency did not respect human rights, operating forced rejections at the European borders both directly (on the Balkan route) and indirectly (passing information to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard) (see my public statement, in Italian, for a summary of these reasons – In English, read here).
At that point, media pressure on the case intensified (involving publications such as Internazionale, Wired, and RAI – for a list see this file), as well as student and activist mobilisation, on a national scale. Faced with all this, the Academic Senate of the Politecnico di Torino decided to discuss the agreement in an extraordinary session on 14 December 2021. Three options were on the table: termination, suspension or continuation of the agreement with the addition of a hypothetical ‘safeguard clause’ with which the parties (DIST, the Politecnico and Frontex) would undertake to respect ‘human rights’ in the execution of the contract. The Senate, by a very large majority (21 out of 25), chose to maintain the contract with the inclusion of this clause (in Italian, Luca Rondi’s piece; In English, on my blog).
A few months later, again Luca Rondi, through civic access on Frontex, discovered that the Agency knew nothing about this clause, and therefore the contract went ahead without it. Its insertion, in any case, would not have changed anything: how can the Polytechnic expect Frontex to respect human rights, when not even the European Court of Justice can? The fact remains that, even in the face of this news, which in fact de-legitimised the vote of the Politecnico’s Academic Senate, everything in Turin continued to remain silent: my Department (DIST) continued to produce maps for Frontex (In Italian, Luca Rondi). In light of all this, I continued – this time with my colleague Francesca Governa – with internal pressure, but without ever receiving any response (read here).
In recent months, Frontex has been in the spotlight several times. Faced with evidence of abuses, the Director General, Fabrice Leggeri, resigned, and, recently, the European Anti-Fraud Office (Olaf) released a report certifying that Frontex covered up serious human rights violations at the European borders (ITA; ENG). In this context, many students and academics at the University of Turin have taken the issue to heart and have continued to press for DIST and the Politecnico to take a clear position and terminate this collaboration. Frontex is involved in systemic violence against asylum seekers trying to cross European borders: there can be no collaboration with such an entity.
The Board of Directors of the other major Athenaeum in Turin, the University of Turin, also came to this conclusion. Since DIST is an ‘inter-university’ department (i.e. located, formally, between the Politecnico and the University), the University has now finally decided to take a clear contrary stance to the work that DIST does with Frontex. The motion calls on DIST and the Polytechnic to terminate the agreement, immediately, without ifs and buts. This latest development is reported in a further article by Luca Rondi in Altreconomia, where I intervene to reiterate a very simple concept:
Rescinding the contract does not mean taking a step backwards with respect to the missions of an Athenaeum engaged in international contracts and research, but taking one forward. Rescinding the contract is an important signal consistent with an ethical vision of intellectual freedom that the university rightly prides itself on: freedom means being able to re-evaluate decisions taken and change direction if the context has changed. Now is the time to do so.
I don’t have much hope my Department will do the right thing, but we will continue to fight to keep #Frontex out of our Universities.