“Cartography is never neutral”: an analysis of the agreement between Frontex and the Polytechnic University of Turin

Guest Author: Amal Sadki

Amal Sadki is pursuing a Master’s in Peace and Conflict Studies at the Otto-von-Guericke Universität of Magdeburg, after graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Global Law and Transnational Legal Studies. Her main areas of interest are migration, border securitisation, arms exports, and postcolonial theory. She loves to write and dreams of a future in Peace and Conflict research.


On 14 July 2021, the Polytechnic University of Turin, one of the most prominent higher education institutions in Italy, announced through its magazine Poliflash that it had been awarded a tender by the EU border enforcement agency Frontex to provide cartographic services in collaboration with the company Ithaca Srl. This four-million-euro contract, with a duration of 24 months and renewable for another 24 months, required the production of “high-quality cartographic and infographic maps based on Frontex corporate visual identity”.

The Polytechnic, many think, seems to have sacrificed its academic integrity in pursuit of (questionably) prestigious partnerships. The developments that follow cannot but cast doubt over the ultimate purpose of the Polytechnic’s research: if not to improve the well-being of the people involved in these projects – all people involved – as implied in Ithaca’s name (Information Technology for Humanitarian Assistance, Cooperation and Action), then, what is the point? The matter cannot but elicit further considerations on the ethics of academia, especially in STEM, and its role in processes of “academic washing” and co-optation by controversial institutions.

Moreover, the story of this tender warrants urgent reflections on the neutrality and, more generally, the political significance of maps, a topic dear to many critical cartographers. For example, Henk Van Houtum and Rodrigo Bueno Lacy write that “maps are perhaps the most alluring artefacts of geography and the most persuasive descriptions of world politics”. Maps “are not merely a reflection of power but power itself”, as they simplify and tame intricate phenomena in a few basic visual signs, thus creating a sense of “expertise at a glance” even to the untrained eye.


Negotiating human rights

The deal, which from Frontex’s point of view was (and is) a great opportunity to secure desperately needed legitimacy, sparked great controversy among students and academics within and outside the Polytechnic. Professor of Political-Economic Geography Michele Lancione immediately expressed concern over the decision of his institution. In an interview with Wired, he stated that “cartography is never neutral”. He then stressed the fact that scholarly work on migration proves that the EU is not subject to any migrant invasion (which would warrant such a massive cartographic work) and voiced his disagreement with the collaboration.

The partnership was approved by the Academic Senate of the Polytechnic in December 2021, with a binding clause imposing respect for human rights and the principles of academic and research integrity. However, according to Luca Rondi, writing for Altreconomia magazine, the clause was a contractual term only for the Italian consortium comprising Ithaca Srl., the Inter-university Department of Science, Project, and Politics of Territory of the Polytechnic, and the Links Foundation. This meant that Frontex was never under any contractual obligation to observe this human rights clause if human rights could ever be the object of a contract.

In December 2022, the administrative council of the University of Turin officially urged the Polytechnic to terminate the contract in light of a recently leaked dossier of the OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office (Office européen de lutte antifraude), reporting human rights abuses committed by the border agency, however, to no avail. Indeed, the issue at the heart of this controversy is the final use of the maps designed by the Polytechnic, as none of the parties to the Italian consortium wields any power over Frontex or its operations.

The politics of maps or cartopolitics contribute to the definition of borders and the shaping of narratives and discursive motifs regarding migration, mobilities, and territoriality. But to what extent do maps guide the meaning-making processes of such complex phenomena? And what is the role of the designers of such maps, e.g., the Polytechnic University of Turin, in the creation of a decisional approach concerning migration and mobility? Should academia focus only on scientific progress or should it withdraw from projects borne out of questionably ethical circumstances?


A tale of maps and arrows

As John Agnew points out, one of the basic (and arguably obsolete) tenets of the field of international relations is the so-called “territorial trap”, in other words, the assumption that the geographical division of states informs the political processes within and between them. Cartographers often base their work on the same implied assumption. Therefore this trap is still politically imbricated in the aesthetics of maps. Similarly, Frontex’s maps have a tendency to display a “Europe devoid of human beings”, a continent of static borders. Hence the assumption of the territorial trap is reinforced by a scheme of arrows, usually symbolising third country undocumented migrants, that, like a tidal wave, sweep away the carefully drawn European cartographic design.


“Fortress Europe is alive and well.”


Modern mobility scholarship, on the other hand, seems to agree with the fact that borders are a political construct and many critical cartographers have highlighted the weakness of the “territorial trap” embedded in most maps. In his 1991 commentary on cartographic ethics (or lack thereof), J.B. Harley writes “cartography seems to be uncritical of its own practices, and both their intentional and unintentional consequences”. Reflecting on the social responsibility of cartography and questioning the unchallenged dominant positivistic inclination of the discipline, Harley adds that “[e]ach map is a manifesto for a set of beliefs about the world”. Little seems to have changed in the past 30 years if we consider Van Houtum and Bueno Lacy’s perplexity on the ethics of Frontex’s maps.


Frontex’s bad apples

But why is Frontex so problematic? On 13 October 2022, the Berlin-based NGO FragDenStaat, whose work mainly focuses on defending freedom of information, published (together with Der Spiegel) a classified report of the European Anti-Fraud Office OLAF detailing numerous instances of misconduct by Frontex and its officials. The misbehaviour consisted of both human rights abuses and the creation of a toxic work environment, more specifically “[p]ossible witnessing of illegal pushbacks by FRONTEX-deployed assets (Multipurpose Aerial Surveillance – MAS)”, “[e]xclusion of the Fundamental Rights Officer (FRO) of FRONTEX from the reporting line”, “[i]ntimidation, humiliation and harassment of staff members”, “[o]bsessive micromanagement and exclusion of intermediary reporting lines”, “[p]ossible conflict of interest in recruitment procedures”, and “[p]ossible irregularities affecting procurement contracts”.


“The German newspaper claims there is evidence of a systematic pattern of pushbacks carried out since the spring of 2020, thus rejecting Frontex’s claim that the agency had been affected by the misconduct of a few bad apples.”


Though OLAF’s report is valuable for corroborating the allegations of misconduct already made by watchdog organisations and media outlets, it only focuses on natural persons: one may say “the few bad apples” in the Frontex basket. But many seem to detect a systematic pattern of misbehaviour that cannot be reduced to a few rogue individuals. Admittedly, a monitoring mechanism exists, but it suffers from chronic toothlessness. According to the Frontex Regulation (Regulation (EU) 2019/1896), Standard Operating Procedures on Serious Incident Reporting envisage the involvement of the Fundamental Rights Officer (FRO) in matters where there may have been a breach of fundamental rights through Serious Incident Reports (SIR). OLAF identified a series of malicious acts aimed at avoiding the scrutiny of the FRO, such as incorrect classification of SIRs, failure to file SIRs or simply absence of SIRs from the FRO’s database and other types of obstruction. In one instance, the responsible officials prevented a Frontex aerial asset from witnessing misconduct (most likely illegal pushbacks) in the Aegean Sea by removing it from the area, thus avoiding the obligation to file a SIR.

“These were practices of the past”, claimed Frontex’s Executive Management in a statement released on 14 October 2022 following the publication of the OLAF report. After listing some of the measures adopted to rectify the situation, it vowed to make the reporting procedure of violations of fundamental rights more robust. However, the facts seem to prove the alleged systematic nature of Frontex’s misconduct.

A joint investigation led by the collective Lighthouse Reports, in association with the German outlet Der Spiegel, the Swiss SRF Rundschau and Republik, and the French Le Monde, exposed a “refugee pushback campaign” in which Frontex was embroiled. The article published in April 2022 on Der Spiegel recounts the details of how refugees were captured upon arrival in Greek waters, most likely by the Greek Coast Guard with the tactical support of Frontex, placed on rubber boats and set adrift in the Aegean Sea. By pushing the potential asylum seekers back out of Greek territorial waters, they prevented them from applying for asylum in the EU, a practice that is forbidden by International Law, EU law and most national laws, including Greek law.

The German newspaper claims there is evidence of a systematic pattern of pushbacks carried out since the spring of 2020, thus rejecting Frontex’s claim that the agency had been affected by the misconduct of a few bad apples. It appears in fact that in the period of time considered in the investigation, Frontex personnel would locate the dinghies and then rely on the Greek Coast Guard to conduct the actual pushbacks. These actions would then be recorded in the Joint Operations Reporting Application (JORA) database, which however is accessible only to the Frontex staff.

Through a request under the European Freedom of Information Act, Der Spiegel and the other investigating media managed to access the database, thus confirming their suspicions: entries labelled as “prevention of departure”, which technically refers to those cases in which the Turkish Coast Guard prevents migrants’ boats from leaving Turkish territorial waters, were actually pushbacks. What happened in Greek waters, namely beatings, transfers to boats without an engine, destruction of migrants’ property etc., would simply remain unmentioned in the database.

The OLAF report eventually led to the resignation of Frontex’s Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri and a severe PR crisis, as it became subject to harsh scrutiny from more and more NGOs, media outlets, and even EU institutions. Hans Leijtens, the new Executive Director who started his mandate in March 2023, vowed to protect human rights and “restore trust by being very transparent” but despite the new Management, the calls for Frontex’s withdrawal according to Article 46 of the Frontex Regulation (Regulation EU 2019/1896), i.e. ceasing all operations, have not stopped.


Academic Washing: reflections on the ethics of academia

In this discussion, it is worth mentioning the remarkable expression “academic washing”, formulated by the student collective Metamorfosi of the University of Turin in their discursive analysis of the partnership between the Polytechnic University of Turin and Frontex. The collective points out how the power asymmetries between these two parties curtail conspicuously any possibility of academic freedom. Moreover, Frontex seeks legitimacy through the Polytechnic’s prestige as an academic institution: herein lies the “academic washing”, a term which, just like greenwashing, denounces an attempt at co-opting generally popular rhetoric, by Frontex in this case, while concealing a less appealing reality.

Metamorfosi identifies two functions that the academic institution performs for Frontex, namely the actual mapping services, and a more symbolic function, i.e., legitimation and institutional support, which at the same time depoliticises its activity and makes it more acceptable to the public. The same function is, in principle, fulfilled by in-house research, which however does not usually go through the process of peer review, references vague sources, methods, and authors, and makes use of legal disclaimers to shield the European agency from responsibility.


“What happened in Greek waters, namely beatings, transfers to boats without an engine, destruction of migrants’ property etc., would simply remain unmentioned in the database.”


Then comes Ithaca Srl. (Information Technology for Humanitarian Assistance, Cooperation and Action), the third key actor in this mapping project and the result of a collaboration of the Higher Institute on Territorial Systems for Innovation (Istituto Superiore sui Sistemi Territoriali per l’Innovazione, SiTI) with the Polytechnic University of Turin. The former, in turn, is “a non-profit association set up in 2002 by the Politecnico di Torino and the Compagnia di San Paolo, to carry out research and training oriented towards innovation and socio-economic growth”. Starting its operations shortly after its foundation, Ithaca operated on droughts in Pakistan and Sahel in collaboration with the UN World Food Program. In 2008, Ithaca was given the task of processing data to assess the impact of Hurricane Ike in collaboration with E-Geos, a partnership between Leonardo S.p.A. and Thales (both companies active in the Italian defence industry) together with the Italian Space Agency (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana, ASI).

The first steps towards a securitisation of its “humanitarian activity” were taken in 2021, through the merger initiated with Links Foundation, another project that resulted from the collaboration of the Polytechnic and Compagnia San Paolo. In fact, the same year the consortium consisting of the Polytechnic University of Turin, Ithaca Srl., and Links Foundation was awarded the four-million-euro tender by Frontex. It is clear how the Polytechnic was involved at every step of the way, both as an active participant in the project through its Inter-university Department of Science, Project, and Politics of Territory and with its participation in the foundation and administration of both Ithaca and Links.

According to Prof. Michele Lancione, the institution does have an Ethics Committee tasked with reviewing the research projects that enter the gates of the Polytechnic. However, the tender awarded by Frontex never went through a review process, as it seemed unnecessary since the project would supposedly deal only with technical cartographic data. In another interview, Prof. Lancione stressed the difference between a research project and a tender, as the latter implies a decisional asymmetry due to the fact that one of the parties pays for a service that the other offers. Therefore, the agreement between the Polytechnic and Frontex clearly falls under this category.



While the scholarly consensus agrees on the obsolescence of fixed borders, Van Houtum reminds us that “[t]he use of static border-geometry in the case of the mapping of migration is not an anomaly but rather the dominant way of representation in the media, education, politics and the academy”. Frontex’s cartography includes and even reinforces this idea. While, to some extent, the Schengen Agreement has rendered crossing internal EU borders quite uncomplicated, the external politically defined EU border is stronger than ever: walls, barbed wire, pushbacks at sea, refugee camps, and “temporary” detention centres are all part of the current EU borderscape. Fortress Europe is alive and well, but it is – apparently – under the siege of “massive, unidirectional and unstoppable” waves of migrants, usually symbolised by arrows, the size of which is disproportionately scaled up.

On 20 November 2014, Henk van Houtum, Rodrigo Bueno Lacy, and Kevin Raaphorst posted on the blog of the Nijmegen Centre for Border Research (NCBR) “The Compass to Cartopolitics Manifesto” with the intention of inspiring “the development of new cartographies that assume the political responsibility of the discourses they promote”. The authors of the blog post stress the fact that “the creation of territory and the political identities and affiliations it inspires have followed, not preceded, the representation of those territories, identities and affiliations in cartography” and that the morality of a map “depends on the intentions of the mapmaker and the interpretation of the beholder”.

Maps are not simply high-quality drawings, they are not reducible to arrows, colours, and legends. They contain and convey meanings, they reinforce power relations (and asymmetries), and they enable policies, such as Frontex’s border enforcement policies. Despite public outcry, student protests, and national media interest, the Polytechnic renewed the agreement with Frontex in March 2023 for another twelve months. Altreconomia magazine reveals that in May 2023 the administration of the institution claimed no decision had been taken yet, even though the end of the first contract (June 2023) was approaching. The magazine then contacted Frontex which, however, confirmed the renewal of the tender.

According to the European agency’s spokespersons, in the period between June 2021 and May 2023, the Italian consortium produced 107 maps. Nobody besides Frontex has rights over this cartographic work, not even the Polytechnic or Ithaca. The question of their use remains therefore open. Will they contribute to further pushbacks? And will they enable Frontex to continue its systematic pattern of human rights violations?


Correspondence address: amalsadki@gmail.com