As a citizen of the European Union, I am very proud of the Schengen Area, and the unprecedented message of unity and trust that it conveys. We, younger generations, tend to take this for granted. But if you stop and think about it for a moment, this is the world’s best example of taking borders less seriously, in a continent that has fought two World Wars in the name of ‘drawing the line differently’. Beautiful, right?
For a long time I thought it was, until I came to learn about the European Union’s growing border militarization. The fairy-tale reality that characterizes the inside of the Union is in sharp contrast with what is happening at its edges. The outside borders of the European Union are growing stronger, more violent and macabrely technological. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand that -as far as our world continues to be one driven by geopolitics- nations must invest in efficient and effective borders. Yet, this does not justify the ways and the extent to which European borders are being militarized and automated: what is happening at the edges of our ‘utopia’ puts our democratic and human-rights values at severe risk.
The main character in this story is FRONTEX, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. The mission statement on their official website reads: “together with Member States, we ensure safe and well-functioning external borders providing security”. Their aim is essentially that of coordinating Member States to ensure an effective border management. To this end, FRONTEX is engaged in a variety of activities: they analyze migration data and identify migration patterns; they monitor borders; they carry out vulnerability assessments to determine the readiness of Member States in facing migration pressure; they train border authorities within and beyond the EU; they coordinate rapid border interventions, both at land and at sea; they support Member States in screening migrants’ fingerprints; they assist in and organize forced and voluntary returns; and they work to prevent cross-border crimes such as human trafficking, terrorism and smuggling.
In other words, FRONTEX is responsible for monitoring and identifying migration and border issues which threaten the Union’s security, and subsequently work to resolve them, in the respect of the EU fundamental rights charter. Unfortunately, the activities which FRONTEX is currently engaging in are far from being respectful of human rights. FRONTEX has allowed arm companies to successfully lobby in favour of a problem analysis and policy response which, by no coincidence, brings these companies a lot of money. Arm companies can now profit from refugees twice: first by supplying the tools for war and repression which force them to flee, and then again by providing the border security equipment which will keep them out of the EU. FRONTEX and Europe’s arm companies are forging an alarming friendship: a win-win situation for both of them, at the expense of human rights.
A Disturbing Friendship
The EU Transparency Register defines lobbying as any activity that “directly or indirectly” influences policy-making processes, and the implementation of these policies. FRONTEX is accused of being subject to lobbying because there is extensive proof demonstrating that they are in much closer and much more frequent contact with arm and security companies then they are, for example, with human rights experts, ethical theorists, NGO and migrant representatives. The story of migration, however, varies enormously depending on who you are asking. Weapon and border technology companies have a clear economic interest: making money. They will therefore tell you migration is a crisis, they will tell you floods of uncontrolled migrants are approaching, with traffickers and terrorists hiding in the crowd … Quick! Quick!.... Buy this innovative and expensive border technology and keep Europe safe! Human rights experts and NGOs, on the other hand, will tell you that this narrative is treating migrants as objects rather than subjects: the technologies and strategies that we employ to control the entrance of migrants needs to be respectful of their privacy, their rights, and considerate of the trauma they are undergoing. Demographic experts will place the focus on Europe’s ageing population, and suggest to integrate and educate a certain part of the arrivals.
The story, and its corresponding solution, is different depending on who you ask, and FRONTEX is mostly asking arm and security companies. FRONTEX has an unusual way of meeting and consulting with stakeholders. Instead of scheduling one-to-one encounters, they organizes a series of industrial days, in the form of: thematic events, bi-annual industry meetings, workshops and exhibitions. In order to participate in these events, companies must submit an application, and be successfully selected. Between 2017 and 2019, FRONTEX organized 17 industrial events. Under the freedom of information request, the Corporate European Observatory found that, of the 138 cumulative participating bodies, 108 were arm and technology companies, 10 were research centers and think tanks, 15 were universities and just one was an NGO. The aerospace company Airbus and the defence and security company Leonardo received the most invitations, having participated five times each. Gemalto, a company specialized in international digital security, scored four invitations; Thales, specialized in aerospace and defence, was invited three times.
In June of 2019, for example, FRONTEX invited the industry to its ‘International Conference on Biometrics for Borders’. Biometric technology uses biological measures -such as physical characteristics- to identify individuals. Facial recognition and fingerprint scanning are examples of biometric security technology. Clearly, this type of artificial intelligence gives rise to a lot of ethical and privacy concerns. Yet, the Conference did not invite any philosophy of science expert, NGOs, or anyone else who may be suitable to discuss the ethical implications of this technology. FRONTEX did however invite researchers to discuss “the whole new set of challenges to border security” introduced by biometric technology, namely how “biometric systems can be subverted for the purpose of passing through border control under a faked identity”. Since 2017, FRONTEX has organized 5 such events on biometrics for borders: two international conferences and three industry days.
On a similar note, FRONTEX already organized two industry days on the procurement of handguns and ammunitions, after the expansion of its mandate in 2019, which allows its standing corps to carry weapons. It invited “prospective bidders” to present their products and, although a discussion on “recommendations, best practices and concerns” was held, it was given by industry representatives.
In their investigation, the Corporate European Observatory also found that, when applying to these industry events, companies are not asked to provide their EU Transparency Number. This Number certifies that a company is included in the EU’s Transparency Register, a database “that lists organisations that try to influence the law-making and policy implementation process of the EU institutions… [allowing] for public scrutiny, [and] the possibility to track the activities of lobbyists''. 72% of the lobbyists that FRONTEX met between 2018 and 2019 were not part of the EU Transparency Register.
FRONTEX is excluding from its events those bodies who may question the assumption that militarization and innovative security technologies are the best solution for migration; and who may draw attention to the ethical, privacy and human rights concerns which characterize many of these technologies. These industry days are furthermore only making FRONTEX more attractive to arm and security companies, effectively increasing their interest in lobbying. Indeed, most of these events invite both EU and non-EU border officials and policy-makers. FRONTEX is essentially acting as an intermediary between suppliers and potential-buyers: companies have a lot to gain from forging a good relationship with this European Agency.
The language employed by FRONTEX in its publicly available announcements -which disclose and describe upcoming conferences and events, and call for interested industries to submit their applications for participation- makes this reality crystal clear. FRONTEX primarily frames these events as opportunities for arm and border technology industries to “showcase their products”, meet the “end-user community” and give the audience -mostly composed of FRONTEX experts and border authorities- an overview of the market. No real space is given to discussing the desirability and possible human rights concerns of these products. In the graphic below I map the language and expressions used in the 26 announcements published between 2017 and 2020: how often does ‘market’ vocabulary appear as compared to ‘human rights and accountability’ vocabulary?
FRONTEX has never organized an event, workshop or conference around the themes of human rights, migrant mental health, privacy concerns related to emerging technologies and AI, or causes of migration.
It’s therefore rather unsurprising that FRONTEX is facing accusations for migrant pushbacks and human rights violations -investigations published in, among others, the Guardian and Spiegel- and is being questioned for having lied to the European Parliament. This public outcry has culminated in OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, launching an investigation against FRONTEX at the end of 2020, over allegations of harassment and migrant push-backs.
A Firearm and Technology Vision of Border Control
The result of this lobbying has been a vision of border controls based on firearms and biometric surveillance. A vision which leaves very little space to human rights and ethical concerns.
Using the publicly available Consolidated Annual Activity Reports of FRONTEX, I gathered the data presented below. While the number of total illegal border crossings has dropped by 92% compared to 2015, the value of FRONTEX’s procurements has steadily increased.
Despite the significant decrease in illegal border crossings, the European Union’s borders continue to grow bigger, more militarized and automated. The current migration numbers cannot possibly be framed and conceived as constituting of a ‘crisis’, an ‘imminent security threat’. In 2019, FRONTEX reported a total of 141,846 illegal crossings. This is equivalent to 0.0003% of the Union’s population. These numbers do not justify the implementation of an aggressive border policy happening behind the curtains, without transparency, accountability, and through a decision-making process that is far from being inclusive and equilibrated.
The only FRONTEX body which is in charge of monitoring and advising on human rights is the Consultative Forum, composed of key European Institutions, international and civil society organizations. While FRONTEX should strive to consult the Forum on all fundamental rights matters, it is up to them to decide when to convene the Forum’s expertees and consultations. The yearly work programmes of the Forum are publicly available, and show that this consultative body has never been asked to advise FRONTEX on its relationship with the industry.
The only tool through which victims of human rights violations and the public can hold FRONTEX accountable is the Complaint Form. Under the EU Regulation 2019/1896, FRONTEX’s Consolidated Annual Activity Reports need to provide information on the received complaints, in the name of transparency and accountability. While FRONTEX does publish the details of some of these complaints, the final reports on the outcomes of these accusations are always “under preparation” and “pending”. Other complaints are defined as “closed”, with no additional information being provided on whether FRONTEX was held accountable, and how -if so- it will respond to its mistake, ensuring it does not repeat itself.
The picture is even more disturbing in light of FRONTEX’s growing budget and expanding mandate. FRONTEX's Annual Activity Reports reveal a budget increase of 402 million euros from 2015 to 2021. The European Commission has furthermore approved a budget of €5.6 billion for 2021-27: the largest budget to be held by an EU Agency. In 2020, FRONTEX’s mandate was also expanded: the agency can now buy and lease its own vessels, vehicles, airplanes, drones and radars; they are no longer dependent on Member State’s equipment. No enhanced and systematic mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability are being set-up to complement this increase in budget and powers.
The high number of illegal border crossings registered by the EU in 2015 created a climate of emergency in regards to strengthening the Union’s external borders. While the topic of borders and migration needs to be discussed, FRONTEX’s current handling of the issue is incredibly inappropriate and unjustifiable. The friendship that has been forged between FRONTEX and arm and security companies, at the expense of human rights and ethical considerations, threatens the whole value system by which the EU supposedly stands. Action needs to be taken to ensure that the European migration policy is one where human rights and respect take a central stage.
If you are falling off your chair right now, pondering how you could possibly help hold FRONTEX accountable, hang on for just a little more. Next week's article will interview Stop the War on Migrants, a self-organised, Amsterdam-based group running campaigns and taking direct action against border militarisation, Thales and Airbus.