Society Migration and populations

Immigration: The secrets of Fortress Europe

4 October 2012
De Groene Amsterdammer Amsterdam

The EU is constantly looking to strengthen surveillance of its external borders, using increasingly expensive technologies. But are they effective? And in a democracy, who control the controller? asks the Groene Amsterdammer.

“There is no alternative”, said Franco Frattini, European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, in the European Parliament four years ago. “Criminals have superior technology to ours.” And he therefore announced the launch of two plans. The first involved the permanent surveillance of all exterior borders, complete with drones for the detection of migrants at sea. The second was a proposal for “smart borders”, or rather biometric recognition of everyone entering and leaving Europe.

The former plan, Eurosur – which stands for European Border Surveillance System – is to commence on 1 October 2013, and is therefore currently being discussed in the European Parliament. “Each member state is to set up its own centre to coordinate all border security operations, by the police, customs and navy,” explained Erik Berglund, Director of Capacity Building at Frontex, the European border security service based in Warsaw. “So far, the dissemination of information has taken place solely on a voluntary basis.” Eurosur has three main objectives, as Mr Berglund explains: “Detecting illegal migrants, combating international crime and rescuing boat people.”

According to NGOs, the last of these is primarily a sales pitch. “Eurosur may well assist in detecting small boats,” Stephan Kessler of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Brussels admits, “but there is still no protocol to establish who is to be rescued and where they may apply for asylum. Malta and Italy spent five days just discussing that one little boat that was bobbing around there last year.”

“Smart or stupid borders”

According to the authors of the Borderline report commissioned by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Eurosur is both technically and organisationally unsound. “The only people to have investigated whether it will actually work are Frontex and the firms that sell the technology”, Mathias Vermeulen also claims. He is co-author of the report and a specialist in international law at the European University Institute in Florence. “There’s no supervisory body and, while the Commission insists it will only cost 340 million euros up to 2020, we have calculated that it may amount to two or three times as much.”

So much money has already been spent on Eurosur, that it has become something of a runaway train, Mr Vermeulen thinks. That is not yet the case with the smart borders proposal, currently being considered by the Commission. While its spokesperson was unwilling to discuss the matter, it is clear that it is to comprise both an Entry/Exit System and a Frequent Travellers Programme. Data on all non-European travellers, including the date and place of entry and the addresses of any contacts within the EU, as well as their biometric data, such as fingerprints and a digital photo. The person is then scanned once more on departure, enabling the system to detect anyone staying behind illegally.

However, Europe does receive 100 to 150 million visitors annually. And biometrics consultant Max Snijder is therefore rather sceptical in this regard: “We have no experience whatsoever of this sort of Giga system. Who is to report that someone is deceased? And if a person does fail to leave again, what do we do then? All the drones and coastguard vessels in the world wouldn’t help in such cases. And who is to be authorised to access the data?”

“The term ‘smart borders’ is certainly a tactical choice,” Mr Vermeulen insists. “It suggests that we have a choice of either smart or stupid borders, in which case we would naturally opt for the former.” Data protection would nevertheless remain a fundamental problem according to Mr Vermeulen: “European law states that there have to be sound reasons for recording someone’s personal characteristics. This plan is based on the assumption that every traveller is a potential criminal. People reported as having stayed behind, however, may well have been admitted to hospital for instance.”

The Commission insists that the system is solely intended to keep track of migration statistics. In that case, it is anything but an inexpensive means of recording statistics: It would cost around 450 million euros to implement smart borders, while the physical execution of such operations would cost a further 190 million annually. Furthermore, the Schengen Information System, an existing EU IT project, ultimately cost five times the initial budget estimate.

“Unsound from a democratic perspective”

Experience gained in the United States suggests that restraint is prudent. Research carried out in 2008 revealed that biometric entry control had detected 1,300 undesirable visitors. And given that the system had already cost 1.5 billion dollars, the question remains: ‘Is one million dollars per case actually cost effective? A further 3.7 billion dollars was invested in the Secure Border Initiative, set up to permanently monitor the US borders with Mexico and Canada, before funding was abruptly cut off in 2010. The Government Accountability Office ultimately concluded that the initiative was too technically complex and far from cost effective.

Unfortunately, the EU does not have such an independent body to monitor major IT projects. The European Parliament is consequently more or less faced with a fait accompli. While it is scheduled to discuss several amendments on 10 October, little is likely to change in terms of content. Technology appears to have taken charge of the helm. Not just Frontex or the Commission itself, but even member states and MEPs often appear to have adopted the motto: More is better.

“Border security is set to become an intangible, omnipresent machine which permanently divides people into the categories desirable and undesirable,” says Huub Dijstelbloem, author of ‘De Migratiemachine’ (The Migration Machine). “‘The ultimate aim of the exercise, however, remains a mystery. This can be partly attributed to the uncertainty concerning the type of political entity that Europe actually is. The technological logic currently being applied is rather unsound from a democratic perspective, as there are no clear objectives whatsoever, while it may have tremendous impact. We are poised to shift from Fortress Europe to a surveillance society.”

Translated from the Dutch by Kelly Boom