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EU Earmarking Billions to ‘Secure’ Borders

According to a recent report the EU, wary of increased migration, has been dedicating billions of euros to increase border security and regulate migration. Provisions have been made to utilise biometric identification, facial recognition and drones.

by Thomas Deszpot On June 7, 2012

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Ceuta, on the Spanish-Moroccan border. On the other side of the barbed wire lies Morocco. 2002 ©Bruno Arbesu via Picture Tank

In an effort to manage migration flows and keep watch on its borders, Europe is turning itself into a fortress. That’s the conclusion of a provisional study on EU borders carried out on behalf of a European think-tank with links to the German Green Party. In the study, which will be published in full on June 26, researchers Mathias Vermeulen and Ben Hayes describe the direction of EU security policy on migration flows, and especially the technological arms race that is accompanying it.

In 2004 the European Council set up Frontex, a response force specifically dedicated to the mission of border control and migration monitoring. Based in Warsaw, it receives financial support from the EU, some €676 million in the period between 2008 and 2013. A major organ within immigration regulation, the agency operates throughout the continent thanks to its considerable material resources. In February 2010, the agency had at its disposal 113 ships, 25 helicopters and as many as 22 planes.

For more than a year, revolutions in the Arab world have left European leaders in fear of a massive influx of migrants, particularly from the Maghreb. Its services are much in demand in the Mediterranean, where it performs continuous maritime surveillance, but the agency also operates in Eastern Europe. On a hundred kilometre stretch of the Slovak-Ukrainian border, approximately 500 cameras have been deployed. The cameras provide support to the 850 officers who monitor the entry of migrants into the Schengen area. The investment is enormous: to secure a kilometre of border here costs one million euros.

The Frontex agency's operations in Europe and the Maghreb

But the European Commission has no plans to stop there. In September 2011, it strengthened the autonomous capacities of Frontex, allowing the body to manage its own equipment investment and deploy its own teams of border guards. In an effort to stem illegal immigration, the agency can now also mobilise a portion of its forces beyond European borders. Cooperation agreements have been signed with various African countries; Frontex vessels are allowed to patrol the coasts of Senegal and Mauritania, for example.

To complement the existing services at their disposal, the Eurosur project has been on the Commission’s desk since 2008, with the objective of “reducing the volume of third world nationals illegally entering the EU“. Matias Vermeulen and Ben Hayes studied Eurosur in detail, and their conclusions are severe.

Eurosur and “smart borders” represent the EU’s cynical response to the Arab Spring. Both are new forms of European border controls – new external border protection policies to shut down the influx of refugees and migrants (supplemented by internal controls within the Schengen Area); to achieve this, the home secretaries of some countries are even willing to accept an infringement of fundamental rights.


The establishment of Eurosur – which should, according to the researchers, be finalised within the year by the European Parliament – would allow for greater control at the borders and inside the Schengen area. Its targets will be illegal migrants and those who entered countries legitimately but whose visas have since expired, commonly known as “over-stayers”. Intended to act as a complement and in collaboration with Frontex, Eurosur would be equipped with the technological means to perform surveillance, including drones flying over the waters of the Mediterranean. In February 2008, the message delivered to the EU by Franco Frattini, a commissioner responsible for Justice and Home Affairs, summed up their guidance on future immigration policy.

Use the most advanced technologies available to achieve a maximum level of security.

Amongst these “advanced technologies” – biometrics. The “smart borders” concept presented by the European Commission would allow authorities to identify and record any person travelling within EU borders, allowing authorities to verify if a person’s presence within European territory is legal.

As such, the researchers’ report refers to what could become “the largest fingerprint database in the world“. This comprehensive and centralised file is known by the innocuous acronym of RTP, for “Registered Traveler Program”.

Behind this incessant desire to strengthen security and surveillance, the shadow of private companies looms. Through research and development projects and the implementation of the various systems mentioned above, European authorities are financing new markets, promised to defence industries. These investments are primarily military by nature – drones, high definition thermal cameras. In 2008, the French Atomic Energy Commission received €2.8 million to develop “tools for nondestructive inspection of underwater objects, mostly by the use of neutron sensors“. From that money the Uncoss project was born, which works to protect waterways deemed “highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks“.

Large industrial groups also benefit from European funds as part of research projects. Thales received €1.6 million to set up the Simtisys system, responsible for “fisheries control, environmental protection and monitoring of small boats“. Another major French group, Sagem, received €10 million to launch Effisec, a program to strengthen border posts. Among its stated objectives: “to improve the security and effectiveness of control points” and “to improve working conditions for border guards“.

Based on expenses already incurred, the two researchers estimate the overall cost of these smart borders at €2 billion, at least twice the amount anticipated by the European Commission. By contrast, they highlight the limited means available to the European Asylum Support Office. Its budget is nine times lower than that of Frontex.

As currently developed, the legislative and financial framework for Eurosur appears to give a blank cheque to Frontex and the European Commission to keep funding R&D (research and development, -Ed) from the EU budget until they find something that works.

The US example

In the US, the SBI-Net (Secure Border Initiative Network) was launched in 2006, at a cost of $3.7 billion, before being scrapped in 2010. The project, operated by the company Boeing, was set up to intensify controls on the Canadian and in particular Mexican border.

A network of 1,800 towers was constructed, equipped with sensors, cameras, heat and motion detectors. Attempting to explain the US government’s swift about-turn on the project, then Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano argued the system was inefficient.

(SBI-Net) was consistently over budget, behind schedule, and simply not delivering the return on investment needed to justify it. We’re now redirecting SBInet resources to other, proven technologies — tailored to each border region — to better meet the operational needs of the border patrol.

The criticisms raised across the Atlantic don’t appear to have unduly influenced European policies. The issue of borders resurfaced in recent months within the EU, with the recurring question of the Schengen area. In the Netherlands, the project @MIGO-BORAS will focus on Dutch borders with Germany and Belgium. Surveillance cameras placed at 15 or so strategic points are intended to facilitate the identification of “illegals”.


Migration policy pursued within the EU continues to arouse strong reactions across Europe. Migrant support groups complain of measures constituting in their eyes an impediment on basic human freedoms. Migreurop have identified what they argue are violations of the Geneva Convention, which is supposed to guarantee the principle of not turning away migrants. The operation “Anti-Frontex Days” was held from May 18 to 23 in Warsaw, where the agency’s headquarters is located. The upcoming European Football Championship hosted by Poland and the Ukraine will also be used as a platform for protests.

The future of European borders is now in the hands of the European Parliament. If the Eurosur project is implemented, Europe may well be condemned to live locked up.

Images: Bruno Arbesu via Picture Tank © All rights reserved.

This article was updated on 08/06/2012 to reflect the following corrections: A link to a provisional version of the report was removed at the request of the authors. A link to the full version of the report will be included on its publication later this month.

Related: ‘Fortress Europe’, our interactive map of migrant deaths in Europe.

Related: Article 13- “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement”

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